The Low Carb Flu

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Conquering carbs offers a whole constellation of rewards, not the least of which is a steady, brisk energy unlike most people have known before (well, maybe since the whirling age of 10 or so…). People tell me constantly that they can finally make it through the day without being down for the count every midafternoon. They enjoy enough vigor and vitality to weather a whole day's worth of activity. The busyness of life becomes easier to handle: the energy demands of daily work or business travel, the mayhem and constant commotion of kids, a weekend's worth of chores and errands, etc. A skipped meal doesn't suddenly change the agenda to including procuring a bagel or other false pick-me-up. Nonetheless, for some folks, there's a common, temporary but still bothersome bump in the road on the way to that Primal prize. Though it varies, it often means a couple weeks of mental fuzziness, fog and fatigue. Although your body might be off to the races, your brain can lag behind like a little brother in a stuffed snowsuit. It's a game of u201Chey, wait up!u201D while the body's mechanisms and metabolism align themselves. They call it u201Clow carb flu,u201D and rest assured it's just as temporary.

Dear Mark,

I just want to know if anyone who has been Primal for some time had any trouble with cognition in the first few weeks. I can hardly think straight, especially after eating, and I am also low on energy. Will this pass??? Besides that, my body feels great!”

Thanks to Jessica for her question in response to Matt Garland's excellent guest post last week. It's a common subject of emails I receive.

First off, I should mention that some folks experience the low carb flu, and others don't. Overall, those who have been lower carb for some time seem to have fewer problems with the transition taking their carb intake down a notch. As rational as it sounds, this trend still isn't a hard and fast rule. I know a number of Primal adherents who fit this profile and then went on to experience the symptoms Jessica describes. Others I know went from sky high sugars to low carb cold turkey and felt great from day one. Go figure. It might be due to the u201Csliding range of genetic variationsu201D I'll be discussing in an upcoming post.

Although the low carb flu isn't universal, that doesn't mean it's abnormal. For many people, it takes about two to three weeks to move beyond the temporary fog and fatigue. Studies following the physical performance of low carbers showed that initial disadvantages were erased after this window of time. If your body is used to employing easy glucose carbs and now must create glucose from fats and protein (a slightly more complex but entirely natural mode of operation), it can take some time to get up to speed. Rest assured that our bodies can and are doing the job. It simply takes time to work efficiently. The transition actually shifts metabolic related gene expression, increasing fat oxidation pathways and decreasing fat storage pathways. (That's nothing to shake a stick at!) Within a few weeks, the body should be fairly efficient at converting protein and fat for the liver's glycogen stores, which provide all the glucose we need for the brain, red blood cells, muscles, etc. under regular circumstances.

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