Monday, May 30, 2011

Why Does a Low Carb Diet Make You Feel Shaky?

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. 


  1. Today is day 6 of a really low carb diet. I have been dizzy and shaky for the first 5 days but today was much better. Already down 5 lbs. I have been strongaling to lose weight for the last 4 months. I think it is a great weightloss program and lifestyle change. Have done this type of diet in the past and have falled missrabally but now have a whole new aproach. Roger Spanos

  2. I'm so glad I found this book! My mother is overweight and for years doctors simply told her to eat less. However, she eats very little, excercises constantly and continues to gain weight. She's tried several diets and the results have always been minimal. Finally, one doctor said she might be insulin resistant. This book clearly details how your body's metabolic system can function more effectively by linking protein with carbohydrates at every meal. Unlike other diets that ask you to eliminate carbohydrates, which is unhealthy, this book tells you how to effectively keep carbohydrates in your diet. Some great recipes are also included. This book is better than a diet! It tells you how to successfully boost your metabolism with the foods that you eat!

  3. what book are you referring to? Please let me know so I can figure it out.

  4. I haven't a clue what book Italia is talking about, but if it claims that metabolism works more effectively by linking protein and carbs at every meal, then he author doesn't know what he or she is talking about. Your metabolism doesn't work that way.

  5. This is a good diet and projected plan. However, as someone who's 32 years old, does have a slight elevated BP and on 5mg of Lisinopril, you must be careful. I'm also on 163mg of Levoxyl (hormone replacement) from a full thyroidectomy 3 years ago due to cancer. What has always worked for me is exercise 4-5 times a week, balanced nutrition and a low salt/sodium diet, otherwise the BP can spike. I lost 20 .lbs on a work related (biggest looser) competition but then gained 5 back. I need to loose now 30-35 .lbs and then my PC physician said I should be able to come off the Lisinopril if the BP is where it ought to be. The other trick is I've always drank plenty of water throughout the day and always have decaf green tea with half teaspoon of honey and a lemon wedge if I've got it.

  6. Anonymous,
    Thanks for your comments. Thyroid issues change the parameters because you need a higher carbohydrate intake to maintain correct thyroid function. Many of us who have been low carbing for a long time have found that upping our carbs to not less than 30 or 35 net carbs per day is a must for good thyroid function. But that's an individual concern. It has to do with how easily your body is able to convert T4 into T3.

    My own experience with elevated blood pressure is that insulin levels have a lot to do with that, but then so do food and chemical sensitivities. Once I got the food and chemicals I'm sensitive to out of my life, both my blood glucose and blood pressure quickly corrected themselves.

    That's why a low carb lifestyle is such an individual journey.

  7. I found this site when I googled, "Can a low carb diet make you shaky?" Due to food sensitivities and weight that won't budge for many years, I am on an elimination and rotation diet...while it isn't too low carb - i am eating fruit and veggies, I am eating a lot less carbs, no cane sugar, no dairy, no chocolate, no regular bread...I wake up feeling fine, but if I don't eat in the first two hours, I start to feel shaky. Since I used to suffer from panic attacks, this is scarey and brings back old memories that make it worse. My blood sugar does rise with eating, but since its not much carbs, it takes a bit longer. I appreciate what you're saying on this page. I've dropped about 5 pounds in about a week-- water weight due to elimination of allergens most likely and carbs. Hope I can keep going! like you!

  8. The shakiness happens when the body releases stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. It's the adrenaline that you're feeling. Adrenaline coaxes the liver to release glycogen or grab triglycerides from your fat stores for fuel.

    Food sensitivities can really mess up your insulin levels and glucose control. For me, the shakiness clears within a week or so after eliminating what I'm sensitive too. So hopefully, the worst is over now.

    If it doesn't get better, try adding a few more carbs than you're currently eating. The amount of carbs in your diet doesn't have to be extremely low to be too low for you. We're all different.

  9. I know I'm posting to a really old thread but I wanted to say that I found your site from Googling "Atkins '72" and boy am I glad I did! I discovered new things -- one, tweaking is not only possible, it's almost mandatory; and, two, that I may need to not go so low in my daily carb intake due to sluggish thyroid and leptin issues. So for that, I thank you.

    As for the book that Italia references, I think it might be the Insulin Resistance Diet. They talk about linking carbs to protein to balance out intake. Really, it's more of a diabetic diet, as I followed pretty much the same when I was gestaionally diabetic.

    Anyway -- long comment to say thank you for your information posted here.

  10. I am new to this food much weight does one typically loose in the first few weeks

    1. There is no typical weight loss. There are just a ton of variables that can affect the rate at which you lose. Those who are new to low carb tend to lose more quickly, but a lot depends on if you've ever dieted before and how much weight you have to lose.

  11. I am on day 13 & have lost 17 lbs.! Normal? I don't know, but am thrilled-40 to go:)

    1. SWEET! Glad to hear you are doing so well. Good luck on getting rid of the other 40!