Keto is a low-carb, high-fat diet that helps you burn fat rather than glucose for fuel. While the keto diet is a safe and healthy lifestyle with minimal side effects, there are bodily changes you should be aware of, including imbalances with keto electrolytes.
When you start a ketogenic diet, it changes the way your body handles electrolytes and water. You may experience thirst, dehydration, and other short-term side effects as a result.
While electrolyte imbalances can be quite common on keto (and easily treated), it’s important to understand why an imbalance occurs in the first place. This guide details what electrolytes are, why an electrolyte imbalance may happen on keto, and how to replenish your electrolyte levels through food and supplements.
Electrolytes are minerals in your blood (and other bodily fluids) that carry an electric charge. These nutrients allow your body to carry out essential functions like muscle contractions, heartbeat regulation, body temperature control, bladder control, energy production, and neurological functions. Common electrolytes include sodium, potassium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, phosphorus[*].
You must have enough electrolytes in your body to function correctly. If one or more of these electrolytes are deficient, you may experience the following side effects[*]:
- Heart palpitations or racing heart
- Feeling shaky, dizzy or weak like you’re going to pass out
- Headaches, brain fog, or migraines
- Weight loss (usually due to a loss in water weight)
- Leg or other muscle cramps, such as getting Charley horses at night
- Trouble with constipation and bloating
When you switch to a keto lifestyle and drastically decrease your carb and processed food intake, you will naturally reduce your sodium intake. Meanwhile, the levels of other electrolytes may decrease along with it.
How does this happen? Each gram of glycogen (stored glucose) in your body is stored with 3 grams of water. When you eat a low-carb diet, and thereby use up your glycogen stores, all that water that was storing it also gets flushed out[*].
When this happens, you can develop an electrolyte imbalance. And if you’re not making an effort to replenish these critical stores, you’ll likely feel symptoms such as a racing heartbeat, heart palpitations, feelings of being dizzy, shaky, or weak, leg cramping, constipation, and bloating.
The Relationship Between Electrolytes and Keto Flu
The keto flu really comes down to electrolyte imbalances. If you don’t understand these symptoms, you may conclude that keto isn’t right for you — but in reality, it’s just an adjustment period.
Electrolyte imbalances can happen to those who are new to the ketogenic diet — but thankfully, there are some simple ways to address these imbalances.
Dehydration on Keto
Water makes up more than 50% of your body and is probably the most important necessity in life. Although everyone should be mindful of their body’s water requirements and stay hydrated, if you’re eating a ketogenic diet (at least in the beginning phase) you may have higher water needs.
The low-carb nature of this diet leads to water loss. This can lead to at least mild dehydration, which can contribute to constipation and other keto flu symptoms.
You can replenish electrolytes through nutrition. There are four main vitamins and minerals that help rebalance your electrolytes to normal levels (and below, you’ll learn various keto-friendly food sources for each).
Note: If you lead an overly stressful life or exercise often, you may need more of these minerals. Stress can affect hormone balance, leading to further fluid and electrolyte imbalances, while strenuous exercise can deplete sodium levels to a greater degree.
Sodium is an important mineral and electrolyte that helps retain water in the body and keeps a proper balance of other electrolytes. Sodium is also vital for muscle and nerve function[*].
Keto dieters can replenish sodium by adding Himalayan sea salt to water and food, or by regularly drinking bone broth. You can also make a DIY electrolyte drink with just sugar-free coconut water and sea salt.
Potassium is a must for maintaining healthy blood pressure levels, regulating heart rate, and ensuring proper fluid balance in the body. Like sodium, you also need potassium for nerve and muscle function[*].
However, too much potassium is toxic so be careful with supplementation. Thankfully, there are great whole food sources out there that contain adequate amounts of potassium. These include salmon, nuts, avocados, leafy green veggies, and mushrooms.
Calcium is another essential electrolyte that plays many different roles in the body, including blood clotting, building strong bones, regulating nerve function, and ensuring proper muscle contraction[*].
You can get calcium from dairy foods, leafy greens, broccoli, fish, and even non-dairy unsweetened milks like almond and coconut milk. If supplementing with calcium, make sure it includes vitamin D to ensure adequate absorption.
Magnesium helps your body maintain a healthy immune system, normal heart rhythm, proper nerve and muscle function, and many other biochemical reactions. Like calcium, you need it for building healthy and strong bones[*].
Leafy greens, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, Swiss chard, and nuts have magnesium. You can also consume a magnesium supplement like magnesium citrate (around 500 mg of magnesium per day is sufficient for most people).
Restore Electrolyte Levels by Staying Hydrated
Since excess water excretion can cause electrolyte imbalances and dehydration on keto, increasing your water and electrolyte intake is imperative when starting a keto diet.
The amount of water that you need to consume daily depends on your activity levels, the climate you live in, and your food intake.
Surely, you’ve been told to drink eight glasses of water per day. However, telling the global population to consume the same amount of water doesn’t account for height, weight, activity level, or physical location.
For example, a 200-pound man who exercises daily and lives in Phoenix, Arizona, should drink more water than a 120-pound female who exercises three times a week and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
That said, you should not drink so much water than you flush out your electrolytes, which is counterintuitive.
Instead, listen to your body. Eat whole foods like green, leafy vegetables that are naturally high in water content, and drink water throughout the day.
Don’t Fall Victim to Keto Electrolyte Imbalances
When transitioning to a keto diet, you may experience an imbalance in electrolytes. Electrolytes are minerals, like magnesium, sodium, calcium, and potassium that carry out a wide range of important bodily functions.
To restore your electrolyte levels, you can consume electrolyte supplements, like those offered by Perfect Keto, or you can increase your consumption of certain foods.
Keto-friendly foods like nuts, seeds, and leafy greens are naturally high in electrolytes and can help bring your levels back to normal. At the same time, try to increase your water intake and use sea salt generously at mealtime.
With the right food choices and the right supplements, you can have electrolyte levels. Review this list of keto-friendly foods to get started.