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Why Does a Low Carb Diet Make You Feel Shaky?

Posted May 30 2011 4:56pm
It’s a myth that all overweight people have insulin resistance and/or metabolic syndrome. It’s also a myth that everyone’s insulin and blood glucose levels soar into the clouds when they eat carbohydrates. If you have normal blood glucose control, your body’s sensitivity to insulin will quickly take care of the small rise in glucose you get after you eat. In fact, typical folks never see a rise in blood sugar levels much above 120 mg/dl (6.6 mmol/L) – no matter how much starch and sugar they eat.

The problem comes for those of us with an abnormal response to the carbohydrates we eat. Reasons for that vary, but taking the necessary steps to correct the problem can often make us feel ill.

The Atkins’ Flu, Detoxing from Sugar, and Carbohydrate Withdrawal

The first two weeks of a low carb diet can send the body into a tizzy. We’re restricting the body’s first-used fuel source, emptying out glycogen stores, dumping a lot of excess water, and coaxing our liver to begin breaking down stored body fat. While these changes can seriously disrupt our electrolyte balance if we don’t get enough sodium and potassium (The Atkins’ Flu), we can also feel tired and crave our favorite foods as our blood begins to clean out the allergens.

While the labels the low-carb community has adopted for this situation aren’t technically accurate – we don’t get the flu, detox from sugar, or go through carbohydrate withdrawal – we do experience body changes and cleansings that sometimes take several weeks to adjust too. One of those changes is a drop in our basal insulin level, a lower glucose response to the foods we are now eating, and therefore a lower post-meal insulin response as well.

Pseudohypoglycemia Makes You Shaky

If you’ve had moderate or high blood glucose levels for any length of time, after a couple of days on a  low carb diet, you can feel downright awful. That’s because the body gets used to all of that higher glucose running around. Improving your numbers through healthier food choices causes the body to panic, believing you’re in a dangerous low blood sugar situation.  Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline swiftly coax the liver to dump more glucose into the bloodstream, even though your blood sugar level might still be above normal.

This reaction is known as pseudohypoglycemia; and there isn’t a whole lot you can do about the shakiness, pounding pulse and heat beat, sweatiness, and anxiety – except wait it out.

Real hypoglycemia kicks in when your numbers consistently drop below 70 mg/dl (3.8 mmol/L), with the key word here being consistently. It’s not unheard of for a low carb dieter to find their glucose dipping down into the 60s after liver glycogen depletes. But that’s generally a temporary situation. Converting stored body fat into fuel isn’t as fast as using glycogen, so occasionally the body can find itself in a slightly hypoglycemic condition.

When Stress Hormones Interfere with Your Life

A low carb diet helps correct metabolic imbalance. It does that through restricting carbohydrates – if you give your body the time it needs to adjust to normal blood glucose levels. However, the 20 grams of carbohydrate per day that The Atkins Diet recommends for Induction isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. It’s a recommendation meant to get as many people as possible into Ketosis easily.

If you’re having a difficult time dealing with the consequences of cortisol and adrenaline secretion, Atkins Nutritionals advises that you add an additional 5 grams of vegetable carbohydrate per day and see if that fixes the problem. What you don’t want to do is go back to the food choices that caused your high blood glucose levels in the first place.

While eating a bowl of Lucky Charms or snatching up a couple of chocolate chip cookies might make you feel better, it won’t help correct your metabolic issues. It will just prolong the time it takes for your body to adjust to and learn what normal blood glucose levels are.

A Low Carb Diet Helps You Attain Safe Blood Glucose Levels

If you have metabolic problems, high glucose comes from eating more carbohydrates than you can process. Until your body learns what a normal blood sugar level is, you may have to grin-and-bare several stress hormone reactions. Many low carbers have learned to handle the difficult times by calling these problems “detox” or “withdrawal symptoms.” While that isn’t exactly true, a low carb diet does work in the way that a good, solid elimination diet does.

An elimination diet is extremely restrictive, much like Atkins Induction. You go into it knowing (and hoping) the restrictions are only a temporary measure. A diet you can build on one food at a time.

In the same way that Atkins asks you to return 5 grams of carbohydrate per day to your diet (at realistic intervals), elimination diets do the same thing. While initially these metabolic-healing programs are hard, and the shakiness can make you want to quit and walk away; a low carb diet can help you discover which foods will keep your blood glucose within safe parameters. And that can well be worth the effort. 
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