Following a keto diet has many advantages and benefits; however, some experience serious leg cramps as a result of eliminating carbs from their diet. Read about why these happen and how you can prevent leg cramps when on a low carb diet.
Leg cramps on keto
Leg cramps can be common when starting a Ketogenic diet because of the substantial physiological changes that occur when switching your body from primarily burning glucose for energy to using fat. To understand how to fix the issue, first, we need to understand precisely what is causing the problem.
Causes of muscle cramps for most people may vary. Some reasons are exercising for long periods, muscle strain, dehydration, or even taking certain medications. Muscle cramps are typically not harmful and do not require medical care.
While on a keto diet, your body processes things differently. When it comes to keto muscle cramps, there is a central reason for their occurrence that involves processing the hormone insulin. When you consume fewer carbs, your body does not need to produce as much insulin since insulin is what helps regulates the glucose you get from carbohydrates. So since you are eating fewer carbs on a keto diet, your body does not need as much insulin as it usually requires.
Having less insulin in your body signals to your kidneys that they do not need to absorb as much sodium. So instead of your body absorbing it like it usually does, it releases it in your urine. That means that less sodium is being absorbed, leading to a sodium deficiency.
Sodium is a key electrolyte, so having low sodium results in an electrolyte imbalance affecting other essential electrolytes like calcium, potassium, and magnesium. When there is an imbalance, electrical messages get thrown off, causing spasms and contractions of the muscle.
The primary goal of electrolytes is to help push fluid in and out of your muscle and nerve cells. This helps to keep you hydrated. But without them, your body becomes dehydrated, and dehydration leads to leg cramps.
Are leg cramps a sign of ketosis?
If you do not typically experience leg cramps but are now feeling them after starting a keto diet, it could be a sign your body is entering ketosis. Because leg cramps result from an electrolyte imbalance, this usually means your body is processing insulin differently. If it is processing insulin differently, then you know things are changing biologically, which is what needs to happen to get into ketosis.
The fix is very simple, replace what is lost! Not the glucose obviously but the water and electrolytes. In the first 4-8 weeks, when transitioning over to a ketogenic state, it is important to do 2 things.
#1 Drink More Water!
Many people don’t drink water consistently throughout the day. Instead, they drink it when they are “thirsty.” Because your body is expelling so much water, you need to be proactive with your water intake! When you wait for your body to send “thirsty” messages, it is too late. It is also important that, when staying hydrated, do not immediately reach for diuretics like coffee, tea, or soda. While there is nothing wrong with these in small amounts assuming they are all sugar-free, we should instead be reaching primarily for WATER and lots of it. Don’t wait for those thirst signals!
#2 Eat More Salt and Get In Your Electrolytes
This is the more controversial statement because so many of us have been told our entire lives that salt will increase our blood pressure and lead to cardiovascular disease. What most people will find as they cut sugar and starch out of their diet is their blood pressure will fall as they transition into a ketogenic state, allowing them to add more salt to their diet. Salt your food to taste and consider getting a more natural salt like Pink Himalayan salt or Redmond’s Real Salt. These salts include more electrolytes like potassium and magnesium rather than just the pure sodium present in heavily processed salts like Morton’s.
You can also include more foods that naturally contain more electrolytes like green leafy vegetables, avocado, and beef liver. Having a varied diet full of natural foods is usually enough to meet your electrolyte requirements, but if leg cramps persist, you might need to take magnesium or potassium supplements or take warm Epsom Salt baths at night to absorb more magnesium.
Lastly, if you need electrolytes fast, you can supplement electrolytes with a drink. If you’re looking for store-bought drinks and are not following a super strict keto diet, make sure you look for sugar-free or zero sugar ones like Gatorade or Powerade Zero. But keep these drinks to a minimum.
Ultima is my favorite electrolyte drink that you can order off Amazon. It is sugar-free with clean ingredients. You can also make your OWN homemade sugar-free electrolyte drinks at home!
Here are a couple of homemade electrolyte recipes you may like:
The most important thing to know is for the vast majority of people who experience leg cramps when starting a ketogenic diet; they do not persist past the transitional stage in the first 4-8 weeks. Once your body can use fat for fuel efficiently, it can make the necessary adaptations to keep all your muscles functioning normally throughout the night. Until then, it is smart to have some immediate remedies on hand at all times and even possibly by your bedside for those terrible midnight leg cramps!