Muscle cramps, especially in the legs, are a common experience for many when they first adopt a Zero Carb diet. It is one of the many unpleasant symptoms that can occur during the adaptation period, but sometimes they can continue for longer. There are a number of reasons that these muscle cramps occur, but the main one is an electrolyte imbalance.
When you first go on a low-to-no carb diet, you lose a lot of excess fluid from your cells. As this fluid gets flushed out from your body, it carries electrolytes with it. There are four main electrolytes: sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride. Many folks who experience muscle cramps when they first begin a Zero Carb diet have found that both extra salt (containing both sodium and chloride) and extra magnesium can help to prevent muscle cramps during the transition process. However, increasing these three electrolytes is not universally helpful, and it is my opinion that potassium is often the electrolyte that most needs to be supplemented.
The RDA for potassium is about 5,000 mg per day. It takes about 3 lbs of fresh meat to meet this requirement. Whether the RDAs are the same for people following an all meat diet is certainly open to debate, but I offer it here for reference. However, whether 5,000 per day is necessary for long term health on a Zero Carb diet or not, it is highly likely that the amount of potassium being excreted during the transition and adaptation period is excessive enough to tip the balance in the wrong direction and cause muscle cramping.
Traditionally, even the most knowledgeable Low Carb doctors have recommended consuming additional salt and magnesium during the early stage of a person’s transitions to such a diet. And Dr. Phinney explains that without adequate sodium, the muscles cannot retain adequate potassium inside the cells. (To read more about this, please see my article on Salt.) However, it baffles me that he never once recommends including extra potassium. I suspect that the reason for this oversight by Dr. Phinnney may be that he is promoting a Low Carb diet that still includes low carbohydrate plant foods, like leafy greens and berries. All fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium. But, on Zero Carb, our only source of potassium is from the meat we are eating, and while some folks can consume 3 pounds of meat a day, many others cannot.
Consequently, it is my opinion, that if a person new to the Zero Carb diet is experiencing muscle cramps, they would be wise to consider supplementing with extra potassium, in addition to the other three electrolytes. Unfortunately, potassium is a mineral that the FDA has very strict regulations on, and all supplements must not exceed 99 mg per dose. This makes is difficult to obtain adequate supplementation through a capsule or tablet and is more expensive than it really needs to be.
The restrictions on potassium were put in place because too much potassium can lead to hyperkalemia (high potassium) which is very dangerous. But the amount of potassium that one needs to ingest to reach toxic levels is quite high. Dr. Max Gerson, a highly respected German-born physician who treated cancer, prescribed a diet that included about 10,000 mg of potassium each and every day, both from food and supplements, without any negative consequences. The only time that normal moderate potassium supplementation can be dangerous is in people with severely compromised kidney function and out-right kidney failure.
A natural way to increase potassium on a Zero Carb diet is through meaty bone broth. (Please see my earlier article on this subject: Can Bone Broth Be Used as Part of a Zero Carb Diet?) Broth from just bones without meat on them will not contain much potassium, but broth that has been prepared from meaty bones or meat alone will. This is because the potassium is in the meat and not the bones. If a person is unable to consume bone broth due to glutamine sensitivity, then broth made from just meat, like lean round or rump roast, will serve equally well for this purpose. You can buy whole round roasts at Costco for less than $4.00/lb. Every pound of beef contained 1,200 mg of potassium which will get transferred to the water it is cooked in. I also like to use turkey parts, such as backs, necks, wings, and drums because they are a nice combination of both meat and bone and fairly affordable. Whole chicken works equally well. I always toss the meat and bones after cooking because all of the nutrients have been cooked out of them.
If making meat or meaty bone broth is not a task you wish to undertake, you can add a little extra potassium to your regimen through a supplement. The best product for the price is Potassium Gluconate Powder by NOW Foods which provides 270 mg of potassium per 1/2 tsp. For some reason, this particular product is not being held to the strict FDA limitation of 99 mg per serving that every other potassium containing supplement on the market. It is pretty affordable at $18.00 for an 16 oz. bottle that provides over 250 servings.
Long term Zero Carb-ers like Michael Frieze had to go through the adaptation period on therir own with little support from others or knowledge of what to expect. Many of these individuals experienced muscle cramps for the first few months after beginning the diet, but the cramps gradually became less frequent and disappeared altogether. Michael – taking the advice of Owlsey Stanley, a.k.a. The Bear – decided to remove salt from his diet completely at the same time he began a Zero Carb diet. His body eventually adapted to a salt-free, all-meat diet, and he has had no issues with inadequate electrolytes or any other deficiencies for the past 5 years. So, the worst case scenario if you do nothing, is that you might have muscle cramps for a few months while your body is adapting. But, meaty bone broth and/or a good electrolyte formula like the one mentioned above will likely make your transition easier.
While I think an electrolyte imbalance is the primary cause of muscle cramping in the early stages of adopting a Zero Carb diet, another possible cause is inadequate water intake. Sufficient water is needed for the electrolytes to do what they need to do. There is some difference of opinion in the Zero Carb community about how much water a person should drink. The advice most often given is to drink according to thirst, but I am not convinced that thirst is our best indicator of when we need water. I base my opinion both on my own experience and the works of Dr. Fereydoon Batmanghelidj.
Dr. B was an Iranian-born physician who found that many different illnesses went away in his patients when they simply started drinking more water. According to Dr. B., water is the single best natural anti-histamine that we have at our disposal, and this is one of the primary reasons that drinking an adequate amount can have such a positive impact on so many different health problems. He wrote several very interesting books which I have read and highly recommend: Your Body’s Many Cries For Water; You’re Not Sick, You’re Thirsty; and Water Cures, Drugs Kill: How Water Cured Incurable Diseases. He has written several other books that I have not yet read, but which might also be worthwhile. You will find them all through Amazon by searching on his name.
I have helped two personal friends of mine to virtually eliminate their seasonal pollen allergies and lifelong asthma by getting them to follow Dr. B’s protocol. Both of my friends were coffee drinkers and neither of them liked to drink water. Coffee is dehydrating, so drinking it in place of water can compound the problem. Dr. B says that it takes about 2 months for the cells of your body to become fully hydrated once you begin his protocol, so results may not be immediate. By the time allergy season rolled around, however, both of my friends had been drinking more water for a few months and the results were quite stunning. Their allergies were basically non-existent, and the one with lifelong asthma only needed to use his inhaler about 3 more times and never got his prescription refilled.
Some people have a lot of resistance to increasing their water consumption because they don’t like the way plain water tastes. I think this is due mostly to the poor quality water most of us have access to today. I have tasted water coming out of natural mountain springs and it is nothing like what comes out of our kitchen tap or the filtered bottled waters sold in stores.
Buying really good bottled natural spring water like Fiji is prohibitively expensive for most people. But it is important to take the time to find a water that is both pleasant tasting and affordable, or get a filtration system that will turn your tap water into something drinkable. Nora Gedgaudas recommends the Berkey water filtration system, for both its effectiveness and its price. I have tasted the water produced by a Berkey and it is excellent in my opinion.
We often forget the basic needs of the human body, seeking answers in more complicated and esoteric directions. Adequate water is extremely important to the proper functioning of our bodies. In the late 1800s, Dr. James Salisbury and his protege Mrs. Elma Stuart healed many people of many different illnesses simply by prescribing a diet of beef and water. They considered the water to be just as important as the beef, and their protocol is surprisingly similar to that of Dr. B.
Like Dr. B., Dr. Salisbury and Mrs. Stuart recommended that a minimum of 2 liters of plain water be consumed throughout the day. Many people of their time reported greatly improved health simply by following the water protocol alone, without even changing their diet. It seems that the vital importance of water for human health must continually be rediscovered in each generation. You can read more about the beef and water diet they recommended in Stuart’s wonderful volume What Must I Do to Get Well ?
So, the importance of water and the role is plays in supporting the health of our beautiful bodies should not – in my opinion – be underestimated. Increasing your water consumption is a very simple thing to do and is a great place to start if you are experiencing any type of chronic health problem, be it muscle cramps or something more serious. If you are drinking less than 2 liters of water per day, and you are struggling with an all meat diet, I think it is worth considering a 30 to 60 day trial of increased water consumption to see if it makes a positive difference in the way you feel.