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How To Balance Electrolytes When You Go Low-Carb

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Quick Summary tl;dr

Maintaining the right balance of sodium, magnesium, and potassium is crucial for preventing symptoms of the keto-flu, including headaches, muscle cramps, fatigue, and mood swings. Proper hydration and monitoring your body’s signals can help manage and maintain this balance effectively.

Sodium: Aim for 4-6 grams (4,000 to 6,000 mg) of sodium per day using mineral-rich salts.

Magnesium: Aim for at least 400 mg of magnesium daily. To meet this goal, consider supplementing with 200-400 mg of magnesium glycinate or citrate. A deficiency in magnesium can lead to muscle spasms, insomnia, and increased food cravings.

Potassium: Include potassium-rich foods like avocados, meat, and fish in your diet. Consult a doctor before taking potassium supplements, especially if on blood pressure medications. Try to get at least 2,000 mg, or ideally 4,700 mg a day.

Hydration: Drink at least 8-10 cups of water daily to prevent dehydration and support electrolyte balance. Pay attention to your body's signals such as headaches, muscle cramps, and fatigue, and adjust your electrolyte intake as needed.

Table of Contents

Switching to a low-carb or keto diet can bring great benefits like weight loss and better blood sugar control. However, it’s essential to pay attention to your electrolyte balance to avoid common issues like the "keto flu." Many people experience symptoms like muscle cramps and headaches, which can be demotivating and even make them give up.

Electrolytes, such as sodium, magnesium, and potassium, are crucial for your body’s functions, including nerve signaling, muscle contractions, and hydration. When you cut down on carbs, your body loses more sodium, which can throw off your electrolyte balance and lead to symptoms like headaches, fatigue, and muscle cramps.

In this post, we’ll explore why keeping your electrolytes balanced is so important on a low-carb diet, highlight the key electrolytes to watch, and offer tips on how to maintain the right levels to stay healthy and feel your best.

Why Electrolytes Are Essential on a Low-Carb Diet

Electrolytes are crucial minerals for many bodily functions. When you switch to a low-carb or keto diet, your body undergoes changes that make electrolyte balance even more important.

Lower carb intake reduces insulin levels, causing your kidneys to excrete more sodium. This loss can disrupt the balance of other electrolytes like potassium and magnesium, leading to symptoms known as the "keto flu" – headaches, fatigue, muscle cramps, and mood swings.

Proper electrolyte intake helps mitigate these symptoms. Sodium aids in nerve function and fluid balance, magnesium supports muscle and nerve function, and potassium is vital for heart health and muscle contractions. By maintaining these electrolytes, you can prevent the keto flu and ensure a smoother transition into ketosis.

Sodium

Sodium is essential for nerve function, fluid balance, and muscle contractions. When you reduce carbs, your body loses more sodium through urine. Low sodium can lead to headaches, fatigue, and nausea.

To maintain sodium levels, use mineral-rich salts like sea salt or pink Himalayan salt instead of highly processed iodized table salt. Aim for 4-6 grams (4,000 to 6,000 mg) of sodium per day, roughly 2-2.5 teaspoons of sea salt. Dr Volek and Phinney recommend not to exceed 8,000 mg of sodium per day.

Summary

  • Importance: Essential for nerve function, fluid balance, and muscle contractions.
  • Symptoms of Deficiency: Headaches, nausea, fatigue.
  • How to Get Enough: Use mineral-rich salts like sea salt or pink Himalayan salt, avoid highly processed table salt.
  • Recommended Intake: 4-6 grams (4,000 to 6,000 mg) of sodium per day (about 2-2.5 teaspoons of sea salt). Add up to 2,000 mg if you sweat a lot, you're active or live in hot climates.

Magnesium

Magnesium is essential for muscle and nerve function, heart health, and bone strength. Modern water supplies often lack magnesium, making deficiencies common, especially on a low-carb diet. Symptoms of low magnesium include muscle cramps, insomnia, and fatigue.

One interesting aspect of magnesium is its role in calcium regulation. Magnesium helps control how calcium is transported and used in the body. Without enough magnesium, calcium can build up in soft tissues, leading to muscle cramps and spasms.

Research indicates that magnesium can help reduce food cravings; deficiencies in this mineral are linked to increased cravings. Taking a daily supplement of 600 milligrams of magnesium has been shown to significantly reduce these cravings. ( Askari et al, 2021) Either way, you should be getting at least 400 milligrams of magnesium every day.

Make sure to include magnesium-rich foods, and consider supplementing magnesium. Here's a list of the best magnesium supplements,. Magnesium glycinate, citrate, chloride, malate, taurate, transdermal and salts/baths are best options. Avoid magnesium oxide and aspartate.

Magnesium Citrate: An Effective and Often Overlooked Option

Many people avoid magnesium citrate due to its potential laxative effects, but when used correctly, it is a highly effective magnesium supplement. Magnesium citrate is well-absorbed, supports muscle and nerve function, regulates blood sugar, aids in better sleep, and provides constipation relief by drawing water into the intestines.

To avoid the laxative effects, it's crucial to stick to the recommended dosage of 200-400 mg daily. Within this range, you can benefit from its high absorption and health advantages without significant gastrointestinal discomfort.

Summary

  • Importance: Vital for muscle and nerve function, heart health, and bone strength.
  • Symptoms of Deficiency: Muscle spasms, insomnia, fatigue, increased food cravings.
  • Magnesium-Rich Foods: Leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and dark chocolate.
  • How to Get Enough: Supplement with 200-400 mg of magnesium daily, avoid supplements with fillers like maltodextrin. Magnesium glycinate and citrate are some of the best options.

Potassium

Potassium is crucial for maintaining muscle mass, preventing cramps, and regulating heart function. Low potassium levels can lead to symptoms including low energy, heavy legs, salt cravings, and dizziness. Dehydration from sweating or diarrhea can also lower potassium levels. Adequate potassium intake is essential for preserving lean muscle mass during weight loss.

The Adequate Intake (AI) for potassium is 4,700 milligrams per day for adults, which is the same as the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). This amount meets the nutritional needs of most healthy individuals. The Estimated Minimum Requirement (EMR) is 2,000 mg, representing the minimum needed to prevent deficiency symptoms, though this can vary based on individual health conditions and dietary factors.

To maintain potassium balance, include potassium-rich foods in your diet. Supplements may be needed for some, but consult your doctor first, especially if you're on blood pressure medication, as high potassium intake can interact with these medications.

Summary

  • Importance: Helps maintain muscle mass, prevents cramps, regulates heart function.
  • Symptoms of Deficiency: Low energy, heavy legs, dizziness, salt cravings.
  • Potassium-Rich Foods: Avocados, meat, fish, and certain vegetables.
  • How to Get Enough: Consider supplements if dietary intake is insufficient. Try to get at least 2,000 mg, or ideally 4,700 mg a day.
  • Caution: Consult a doctor before significantly increasing potassium intake, especially if on blood pressure medications.

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Hydration and Electrolyte Balance

While following a low-carb diet, maintaining proper hydration is crucial. Carbohydrates help retain water, so when you reduce carb intake, your body excretes more water along with electrolytes.

Drinking enough water helps prevent dehydration and supports the balance of electrolytes. Aim to drink at least 8-10 cups of water daily,  although the exact number varies for individuals, or more if you are active or in a hot climate.

7 Tips for Balancing Electrolytes

1. Incorporate Electrolyte-Rich Foods

Include foods high in sodium, magnesium, and potassium in your diet. Examples include:

  • Sodium: Drink bone broth and use mineral-rich salts like sea salt and pink Himalayan salt. Here are two recipes you may like: Chicken Stock and Bone Broth and Bone Broth (made from oxtails).
  • Magnesium: Meat and fatty fish, avocado, leafy greens (spinach, chard, kale, etc.), dark chocolate, coconut water, nuts and seeds, especially pumpkin seeds and hemp seeds.
  • Potassium: Meat and fatty fish, avocados, spinach, Greek yogurt, mushrooms, broccoli, and coconut water.

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2. Monitor Your Body's Signals

Pay attention to symptoms like headaches, muscle cramps, fatigue, and dizziness. These can indicate an electrolyte imbalance. Adjust your intake accordingly and consider consulting a healthcare professional if symptoms persist.

3. Take it Easy During the Adaptation Phase

Reduce intense physical activity during the initial phase of your low-carb diet, especially the first four weeks. This allows your body to adapt without additional stress and helps prevent further electrolyte depletion.

4. Avoid Common Pitfalls

Be aware of hidden sources of carbs and sugars in foods, which can disrupt your diet and electrolyte balance. Read labels carefully and choose whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible.

5. Use Quality Supplements

Fill any nutritional gaps with high-quality electrolyte supplements. Choose products without additives and follow recommended dosages, especially for magnesium and potassium.

One of my go-to options is Perfect Keto Electrolytes (this link will give you 15% off). They come in powders or capsules and are fantastic for keeping hydrated and replenishing electrolytes. They’ve got a great blend of magnesium, sodium, chloride, and potassium, plus 125% DV of vitamin D to help with magnesium absorption and immune support. Best part? No calories, no sugar, and only natural flavors.

6. DIY Electrolyte Drink

Staying hydrated and keeping your electrolytes in check is key on keto, especially if you're tackling the dreaded keto flu. While there are many ready-made electrolyte drinks available, they may not always be clean or affordable. Making your own electrolyte drink is a great way to ensure you get the right balance of minerals without breaking the bank.

For nearly a decade, I've been recommending my go-to Homemade Electrolyte Drink for nearly a decade. Sip on 1-2 cups of this daily and say goodbye to the keto flu! Plus, you can enjoy variations like Strawberry & Lime, Blueberry & Lemon, Lemon Slurpee, or Strawberry Slushie.

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7. Long-Term Maintenance

As you get used to your low-carb diet, continue to monitor your electrolyte and hydration levels. Regular check-ups with your healthcare provider can help ensure you maintain a healthy balance over the long term.

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Martina Slajerova
Creator of KetoDietApp.com

Martina Slajerova

I changed the way I ate in 2011, when I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid. I had no energy, and I found it more and more difficult to maintain a healthy weight.

That’s when I decided to quit sugar, grains, and processed foods, and to start following a whole-foods-based ketogenic approach to food.

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Comments (8)

Thanks for the insightful breakdown on maintaining electrolyte balance during a low-carb diet! Staying on top of sodium, magnesium, and potassium is crucial to fend off the symptoms of keto flu. I find staying hydrated and using a daily electrolyte supplement effective. Your tips are spot on!

Thanks Jessica. FYI I had to remove the link to the supplement you included as the link was broken - going to a "page not found" result.

Please forgive this odd question: after the words Quick Summary there is tl;dr…what does tl;dr mean?

It's an abbreviation for "too long; didn't read" so it's a quick summary of the article - basically the same meaning  😊

Martina, Thank you for the information.  The chart of electrolyte-rich low-carb foods gives details for raw meats and fish.  I'll go out on a limb here and suppose that most people don't often eat raw meats and fish. What happens to the electrolytes when the meats/fish are cooked?  Thank you.

Hi Kathi, this is for practical reasons. Most people buy raw meat or fish, weigh it, and then cook it. Including the cooked weight means you'd have to weigh it after cooking, which can be difficult, especially for meals with sauces.
The only difference between cooked and raw weight is the loss of water during cooking. For example, a chicken breast typically loses about 20-30% of its weight when cooked. So, a 6 oz raw chicken breast will weigh around 4.2 to 4.8 oz after cooking. However, it will still have the same amount of electrolytes and protein.
You could argue that the same applies to vegetables, which are listed cooked, but I thought these were (usually) easy to weigh 😊

Thank you for replying so quickly and clearing that up for me.  I appreciate the work you do for us.

Happy to help! 😊