Keto Electrolytes: The Importance of Electrolytes on the Keto Diet
Electrolytes are absolutely critical for the human body to function and this is true whether or not we are embarking on a ketogenic diet. We all need them to stay healthy and active! You probably associate the need to replenish electrolytes when you think of athletes or perhaps someone recovering from the dreaded stomach flu. And speaking of flu, if you’re new to keto dieting you may be experiencing—or have heard of—what is commonly called “keto flu.” If you ask any experienced keto dieter how to combat the symptoms of that flu, they will most likely answer (you guessed it!) ELECTROLYTES!
In order to better understand why electrolytes are so important for keto dieters (and for our overall health in general), we will take a look at what they are, how they function in our bodies, and how you can ensure you are adequately replenishing electrolytes when embarking on a ketogenic diet.
What Are Electrolytes and How Do They Function?
The easiest place to start when thinking about electrolytes is to think salt. Now, sodium gets a bad rap: people think of salty foods as being unhealthy and bad for you in general. We are often warned to avoid too much sodium in our diets. But this isn’t necessarily about potato chips and pretzels…this is about a variety of minerals classified as “salts” entering our body and performing specific functions. Calcium, potassium, magnesium, and, yes, even table salt all dissolve into positive and negative charges once inside our bodies. Those charges serve our bodily functions in two ways: they regulate the flow of water in and out of our cells and they also spark our nerve impulses. As the name suggests, electrolytes are chemicals that conduct electricity when mixed with water.
Have you ever been dehydrated? If so, you may have felt weak, lethargic, and even dizzy. This is because your internal “charges” are not functioning as they should and diminished electrolytes are not able to keep up with the regulation of water flow that your body needs to stay balanced and healthy. Most of us don’t go very far without a charger for our mobile devices these days. So, if necessary, start to think of electrolytes as your own personal body charger and don’t leave home without them!
The nerve impulses controlled by electrolytes are a part of our most basic (and critical) functions. Think heartbeat and brain and lung function. All of these processes rely on electrolytes. When our electrolytes are lacking or imbalanced, it can affect our health with symptoms that range from minor to severe and life-threatening.
Specific Electrolytes and Their Sources
We have mentioned a few of these minerals and will now break down the specific electrolytes and how we introduce them into our body through liquids and food. If you think a sports drink is the only way to replenish electrolytes, think again! (And we’ll get to why sports drinks can actually be the wrong source of electrolytes in many cases. Unless you’re running a marathon, you may not need them at all.)
The main electrolytes needed in our bodies are:
When you think of problems that occur in regards to electrolytes, you may assume this is down to a lack of one of the minerals listed above. However, it is important to remember that having too much of one of these minerals can lead to health issues (electrolyte imbalances) as well. The key to electrolytes is balance and you will want to ensure you find balance on a keto diet!
Now, let’s define each of these minerals and how they function in the body:
Sodium controls the total amount of water in our body and our primary dietary source is salt (ideally Himalayan Pink Salt or Celtic Sea Salt). We think of salt as a food flavoring but it does indeed serve specific needs in our body. When following a LCHF lifestyle, insulin levels are kept low and the kidneys excrete sodium at a higher rate causing hyponatremia, or low levels of sodium in the blood stream. We've likely heard the myth that too much salt is bad for you, but this typically applies to those on a standard American diet (SAD) high in refined, processed foods. If you're healthy and following a keto diet, you’ll lose a lot of water and sodium in the first few weeks and will need to amp up your sodium intake to compensate for this loss. For athletes, this problem can be compounded because you also lose sodium through your sweat, and as your sweat rate increases, your sodium and blood volume will decline, affecting your energy and performance.
Calcium is a mineral we are all familiar with as we’ve likely been told from childhood how much we need calcium to build strong bones and teeth. However, there is so much more to calcium in terms of what it does in our bodies. Calcium isn’t just found in our bones—it is in our bloodstream and cells as well. It is important for our blood clotting, muscle contractions, and nerve impulses. When there is not enough calcium in the blood, your body effectively compensates for this by taking it from your bones, which leads to what we know as osteoporosis. We typically need 1,000 to 1,500 mg of calcium per day. And while it is rare, having too much calcium can lead to significant health problems, including digestive issues and brain dysfunction.
Chloride acts as a sort of partner to sodium in our bodies; chloride has a negative charge while sodium has a positive charge, and together they work to regulate our fluids and pressure levels. We have a variety of fluid components in our bodies, blood, cells, and the fluid between cells and chloride plays a role in proper balance and pressure in all of them. In addition to how it helps us regulate these fluid compartments, chloride also helps us keep acidity in balance. We get most of our chloride from the daily salt intake, and it is typically an electrolyte that we keep in check. Cases of too much or too little chloride are rare, but when they happen they may include respiratory difficulties.
Magnesium is truly a super mineral. It contributes to so many vital processes in our body and it is, in fact, the fourth most prevalent mineral in our systems. Magnesium works to maintain and balance normal muscle and nerve function and heart rate. It also helps our immune systems and stabilizes blood sugar. Like calcium, magnesium also contributes to strong bones and teeth. Our bodies are quite adept at expelling magnesium, so instances of having too much of this mineral are rare. Magnesium deficiencies, on the other hand, can occur in cases of alcoholism, because our kidneys excrete a much higher level of magnesium when alcohol is consumed. This can lead to symptoms such as convulsions and muscle spasms.
Potassium is a mineral we get from eating meat, fruit, milk, and vegetables, but when we don’t bring in enough potassium, and instead opt for a diet with more sodium, the imbalance between the two can cause problems. Potassium acts inside of cells as part of the electrical pump that keeps everything in balance. We need plenty of potassium to help regulate our heartbeat and keep our muscles functioning properly. Potassium deficiencies are commonly caused by loss of water associated with vomiting and diarrhea. A potassium “overload” or toxicity is fairly rare, but if it does occur it can be life-threatening. For the purposes of diet, the most important consideration is a good balance between sodium and potassium.
In addition to the electrolytes above, the following vitamins and minerals are also important in maintaining proper function of the body:
- Vitamin D is necessary for the body's absorption of calcium and phosphorus, maintaining healthy bones, and fighting off moodiness and depression
- Zinc is a trace element beneficial for maintaining a healthy immune system and reducing the duration and severity of the common cold
- Trace Minerals such as iron, selenium, fluoride, and copper that your body needs small amounts of to function properly
So How Do I Get Enough of These Important Electrolytes on a Keto Diet?
When you initially start a ketogenic diet, it’s going to upset the balance of your electrolytes. Here’s why: once you drastically cut back on your intake of carbohydrates, your body is going to respond by producing less insulin and then your glycogen stores will be depleted. As this happens, our kidneys will begin to excrete more water and with the excretion of that water comes—you guessed it—the excretion of more electrolytes.
This is a tricky party to get your head around in the early stages of understanding a keto diet: why would I want to do something that is going to push too many “good” things out of my body? The answer is all about balance. You are effectively going to retrain your body to function and you can do this safely by ensuring to replenish electrolytes during a time when your daily meals look very different to what you have eaten in the past.
While we outlined seven specific minerals above, for the purposes of keto dieting we will focus on the four main minerals that will have an impact: calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium.
“Keto Flu” experienced by many dieters will stem from deficiencies in electrolytes. When your calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium levels are out of balance, a variety of flu-like symptoms may set in as your body reacts to the dietary changes. These include digestive issues, feeling shaky and weak, heart palpitations, leg and muscle cramps, and headaches. While these symptoms do not necessarily serve as a ringing endorsement for ketogenic diets, it is important to remember that they are temporary. And by actively working to keep your electrolytes in balance, you can lessen the severity and duration of these symptoms. Most of these minerals can be found in foods friendly to the ketogenic diet and you can ramp up your intake on specific foods to get the electrolytes back in balance. Here are some choices to consider for each of the four minerals:
To increase your calcium intake, try more leafy greens and broccoli. They are an outstanding source of calcium and a wonderful, healthy choice for dieters. For those who simply don’t have a taste for greens, dairy products are another good choice, and fish provides calcium as well. It is also possible to introduce calcium in non-dairy milk such as almond milk and coconut milk (but be sure you are using the unsweetened versions. Some popular almond and coconut milk types have flavorings and sweeteners that will not fall within the guidelines for your daily carb intake on a keto diet, so double check the nutritional information on packaging carefully.) A calcium supplement can also be taken daily.
Magnesium is going to be found in (you guessed it!) leafy greens! If you’re still on the fence about whether you can get more leafy greens in your diet, it may be time to try out some new recipes and see if you can find a preparation method that makes the greens more palatable for you. The good news here is that due to keto’s growing popularity, there are abundant recipe resources available on the internet. Popular sites such as allrecipes.com and skinnytaste.com have entire sections devoted to keto recipes. Magnesium can also be found in nuts, a great snack for keto dieters (provided they don’t have nut allergies). An over-the-counter supplement will work for those who don’t get enough magnesium from food. (A final bonus tip is that you can get magnesium from dark chocolate. A small portion may satisfy the sweet-tooth cravings of keto dieters while maintaining a moderate amount of daily carb intake.)
For those trying to introduce more potassium in their diet, avocados, nuts, salmon, and mushrooms are all good sources. On the subject of avocados, while you may be tempted to pick up a tub of guacamole from your favorite market, it’s best to stick with whole avocados so you know exactly what ingredients you are getting. A sliced avocado sprinkled with salt and a little lemon or lime juice might just satisfy your guacamole craving. Lastly, potassium is abundant in leafy green vegetables; spinach is one great source. Are you beginning to notice a theme?
Increased sodium may not be recommended on other diets, but in the keto diet, you will need to add salt. The bottom line is your body will lose sodium with the excretion of water triggered by ketosis and you can and should add more salt to your food to replenish your sodium levels. Not to mention it will make that avocado taste even better! A homemade keto sports drink like pickle juice (recipe below) may also do the trick, if your tastebuds can handle it! Another way to replenish your sodium on a keto diet is to drink bone broth. This is a popular choice for keto and other diets due to the healing properties found in bone broth and there are a number of brands available in local markets. Most of us associate a steaming bowl of broth as a great home remedy for illness, so those suffering from keto flu might find it comforting as well.
What’s the Verdict on Sports Drinks for Electrolytes?
Sports drinks used to replenish electrolytes are less than ideal for a keto diet as they are loaded with carbohydrates. Think of this way: would you rather your daily carb intake on a keto diet consists only of a liquid or would you rather enjoy some foods with carbs? Most people would rather bypass the sugary drink and get their carbs from food and instead drink water—and lots of it.
Water is your best friend on the keto diet; you will need it to stay hydrated and keep your body functioning and battle the early stages of fatigue. A carb-loaded sports drink is definitely not the answer and, truth be told, most people don’t need them after normal exercise. Sports drinks are really best suited to recovering from extreme sporting activity, like marathons. Unfortunately, when they are overused for those trying to maintain moderate exercise and a healthy diet, the high carb content will backfire on them.
For a low-carb keto friendly sports drink, you can try out a homemade version of Ketorade or try this recipe for keto pickle juice:
Homemade Keto Pickle Juice
- 2 cups of apple cider vinegar
- 2 cups of white vinegar
- 4 cups water
- 2 table spoons Himalayan Pink salt
- 8 cloves of garlic
- 4 teaspoons of Dill
- 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
Simmer for 5 minutes, strain into jar to cool, and enjoy. Recipe courtesy of Geek Eats TV.
Can I Get Enough Electrolytes in My Keto Diet or Will I Need a Supplement?
For keto dieters, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. The keto diet in more like a very low-carb diet or a low-carb high-fat diet plan that concentrates on net carbs than being complete carb-free. Whether or not you need a supplement depends on how you feel and the amount of physical activity you engage in while on the diet. For some people, a few extra shakes of the salt shaker, more leafy greens, and a daily avocado snack may be enough to keep you in check. The important thing is to listen to your own body.
You may be suffering from electrolyte imbalances and want to try a high-quality keto electrolyte if you have any of these symptoms:
- Brain fog or lack of mental clarity
- Low energy
- Muscle cramping and spasms
- Dehydration or increased thrist
Trial and error applies to much of the keto diet and this is true of electrolyte balance and decisions about supplements. It will take time to find what is best for your body, and these guidelines are intended to give you a general overview, to help you better understand the function of electrolytes, and to prepare you for the warning signs when you may have electrolyte imbalances.
Staying hydrated, eating plenty of fat, and being mindful of your electrolyte intake can help ease the transition into ketosis and get you started on a path toward a successful keto lifestyle.