Monday, February 1, 2010
Those of us who have done low-carb for years are happy to sing the praises of the low-carb lifestyle--decreased weight and increased energy, plus improvements in blood pressure, triglycerides, HDL and blood glucose numbers. But in much the same way that the joy of having a new baby diminishes our memory of the pain of childbirth, we find it easy to forget that one of the aspects of low-carbing is very hard. It's called Induction flu, or Atkins flu.
On the Standard American Diet (very aptly named the SAD diet) we are used to eating low fat, moderate protein and high carbohydrate. Our body's primary source of energy comes from the burning of hundreds of grams of carbohydrates we consume every day. When we change from a SAD diet to a low-carb diet, we abruptly remove the macronutrient that has provided most of our energy. Eventually our energy will come from the fat we eat, but in the meantime our bodies have a huge transition to make.
Every nucleated cell in our body contains 46 chromosomes with over 3 billion base pairs of DNA. In that DNA is the information needed to make the enzymes required for us to metabolize both carbohydrates and fats into energy. Although the information is there, it is not translated into enzymes unless those enzymes are actually needed. A person eating a SAD diet will have all the enzymes he or she needs to convert carbohydrates into energy, but very few of the enzymes needed to convert fat into energy.
Typically a low-carb diet is begun at a level of 20 to 30 grams of carbohydrate a day. Suddenly the carbohydrate conversion enzymes no longer have a substrate. They initiate Plan B, which is to utilize the glycogen stored in the liver and muscle tissue. Glycogen is converted to glucose, which is converted to energy. After about a day, glycogen is depleted, and the body moves to Plan C. It notices that fat is available in abundance, and it upregulates the machinery to transcribe the necessary codes from the DNA into RNA, and then to translate that into the enzymes that are required to metabolize the fat into energy. Unfortunately this takes a day or two, and in the meantime the new low-carb dieter starts to experience Induction flu.
The symptoms of Induction flu are not those that are normally associated with dieting. Instead of ravening hunger and cravings, there is a headache and nausea. The dieter may be irritable and lack energy and concentration. Chills and fever are not typical symptoms, but other than that, it feels like the flu and will last for about two days.
What to do? First of all, recognize that this is a transitional state and that it will end. Second, pamper yourself. This does not mean that you dive headfirst back into the carbs, but drink plenty of water, sleep, take a hot bath, take NSAIDs or acetaminophen, watch a good video or read a good book. One of the best strategies is to find a supportive friend either on the low-carb boards or in real life to commiserate with. Simply knowing that this stage is coming and planning for it is one of the keys to getting through it.
Sometimes new low-carbers try to change everything all at once. If you're a caffeine addict, you might want to wait until Induction is over before you give up the caffeine. If you are resolved to start an exercise regime along with the low-carb diet, it might be better to wait until you have recovered from the Atkins flu before you hit the pavement or go to the gym. If you are lightheaded or start having muscle cramps, consider taking a potassium supplement or using Lite Salt or a KCl salt supplement on your food. Low-carb diets have a diuretic effect and tend to make the kidneys excrete potassium.
It takes several weeks for the body to become fully keto-adapted, that is, to complete the conversion from from carb utilization to fat utilization for energy. However, the worst of the process should be over by the end of Day 3. At that point the benefits of low-carbing (increased energy, decreased appetite and a sense of freedom from the enslavement to rising and falling insulin) should start to predominate. Low-carbing is a continuous learning process, but once the Induction flu is over, it's a worthwhile journey into good health.