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The Science Behind The "Low Carb Flu", and How To Regain Your Metabolic Flexibility
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April 30, 2011
11:21 am
Paleo Newbie
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GREAT post -- I have been searching the web for how to deal with this horrible, horrible low-carb flu/withdrawal. Although I was gluten-free before, I was eating just insane amounts of sugar. Often breakfast AND lunch were a candy bar and 20 oz. Coke. Insane. I'm now 8 days off all sugar & artificial sugar, but the withdrawal is awful. I'm not doing low-carb -- I'm having sweet potatoes with lunch and dinner, and 1-2 pieces fruit a day. I had headaches for the first few days. I haven't lost any weight, and the fatigue is just ridiculous. Any advice? Go more low-carb and try to suck it out? I'm not sure how I could eat *more* carbs.

April 30, 2011
1:51 pm
Peggy
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I pretty much always eat 3 high fat, super low carb meals a day, and then fairly often skip one or two of them for no reason other than it feels right. I've been doing low carb paleo for six years, occasionally giving in to large amounts of fruit. This never makes me feel good so I always have to give it up eventually. (I was pretty insulin resistant before.) When I maintain the high carb relapse for longer than a couple of weeks, I lose my metabolic flexibility and end up struggling through one or two very tired weeks. It never fails, our author makes a very solid point.

Thanks for the work! This is a great article.

I particularly loved this bit of insight "You might ask yourself if it makes sense that natural selection would select us to store energy in the form of something directly harmful to us." Thanks again!

April 30, 2011
3:50 pm
julianne
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@ Paleo Newbie:
Try large doses of omega 3. Personally I am only a fan of good quality fish oil that I know has been tested for oxidation, as that is the biggest issue. I recommend people with transition symptoms take about 10 - 15 caps day, You should also take 500iu vit E and 1000mg vit C, to keep it from oxidising in cell membranes. The high omega 3 is only short term to try to counteract the inflammation. Try it and let us know how you go - in my experience it helps. The transition symptoms usually diminish after 3 weeks.

April 30, 2011
4:04 pm
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Paleo Newbie:

If you were drinking that much Coke, you're in caffeine withdrawal!  That would also explain the headaches.  You're trying to solve two problems at once: caffeine addiction and carb addiction, each of which is difficult by itself.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caffeine#Tolerance_an.....withdrawal

The good news is that you're over the hump as far as the headaches.  Don't expect those to come back.  But since you were dependent on the caffeine/sugar hit for your energy levels, that's going to take longer to deal with.  

As the article states, moderate aerobic exercise and weight training is effective in regaining metabolic flexibility.  Are you exercising at all, and if so, how?  

And are you eating the fruit in between meals, or with them?  If you're eating the fruit as a snack, you're sabotaging yourself as far as trying to regain metabolic flexibility.  Fruit is fine, but eat it with a meal.  Same with any other "snack food": either eat a meal or suck it up.  If you keep feeding your body little carb hits, it'll use those and keep you out of beta-oxidation, which is the only way you are going to lose any fat.

Beth:

I think that sugar/"carbs" eaten with a meal (i.e. containing plenty of complete protein and saturated fat) is far less harmful than sugar consumed as part of a snack.  It's the snacking that does you in: see "Why Snacking Makes You Weak, Not Just Fat".  

So if you want to eat more carbs, experiment with adding them to one of your meals.  My inclination would be breakfast, as it's usually closer to lunch than lunch is to dinner, but that sounds like you should just try it and see what works for you.

Have you considered that you might be self-medicating with simple carbs to raise your serotonin levels?  Women do this much more frequently than men.  5-HTP (or even just tryptophan) can help, but check the contraindications before starting it.

Peggy:

Thank you for contributing your observations!

I've never cheated for long enough to lose my metabolic flexibility, but I remember exactly what it was like having to eat every three hours.  And I appreciate the support: thank you.

JS

May 1, 2011
5:52 pm
Paleo Newbie
Guest

@J Stanton, thanks for such a quick reply and for really making me feel like I'm not crazy. Forgot to mention the exercise bit. I was completely sedentary because I have had bad foot pain for a long time. I'm working on it by transitioning to barefoot, but I can't do much walking or cycling. I did do some weight training today. The cravings seem to be ending and food is actually satiating again, which are good signs. I just feel constant brain fog, though -- like I'm partially asleep -- all day long. But I'm coming from a place that is about as unhealthy of a diet as you could eat. Have you heard any other stories from others about how long these feelings lasted?

May 2, 2011
2:45 pm
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Paleo Newbie:

Definitely some form of exercise is necessary: as the research shows, weight loss doesn't do it by itself.  Weight training is good if you can't walk or ride yet. To get aerobic exercise, you can do push-ups and other upper-body stuff even if you don't go to the gym.  Can you do air squats, or does that mess up your feet?  Because air squats will definitely get your blood moving and your heart rate up.

If you're in a permanent foot damage situation, you can find one of those hand-bikes for people with paralyzed legs...but I hope that by slowly building up your barefoot walking you can rehabilitate your feet enough to walk and ride.

Between being completely sedentary, eating a terrible diet, and being addicted to stimulants, I think it's going to take some time to work through all of your issues.  So long as you're making forward progress, which you are, I wouldn't be too concerned.

Does a little bit of caffeine instantly clear the brain fog?  It might be interesting to drink a small black coffee, or a cup of tea, to find out if you're just in caffeine withdrawal.

JS

May 3, 2011
9:39 am
Jay Dean
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I'm a Type II diabetic and what you describe is *exactly* my experience, after some years of experimentation with diets and exercise regimens. I have found it vital to get some sort of aerobic exercise every day, and I do mean "every". With that discipline in place I can eat a satisfying (and very balanced) diet without hunger or the "low-carb flu" and maintain both weight and glucose levels.

Of course this is just a single point of anecdotal evidence, but I'm living it and convinced. I'm coming to realize that the regular frequency of exercise is more important than the intensity of the workout. You cannot skip a few days and make it up on the weekend.

May 3, 2011
4:16 pm
Paleo Newbie
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@JStanton, thanks for your thoughts. I'm going to keep plugging along. 2 weeks into this and I'm still having digestive trouble, so there may be something else going on here.

BTW, I thought you'd get a kick out of the fact that your website is blocked where I work. The reason? "Illegal drugs." ha ha.

May 4, 2011
8:47 am
Humpday Paleo Push T
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[...] talks about metabolic flexability – your body’s ability to burn both fat and glucose and its [...]

May 4, 2011
11:31 am
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Jay Dean:

Thanks for sharing your experience!  I also need to get some exercise each day or I don't feel right.

Interestingly, most of the research I find on metabolic flexibility is on the ability to switch the other direction, i.e. to sugar-burning, which is also impaired with Type II diabetics (as one might imagine).

Paleo Newbie:

If you're having digestive trouble, you are likely to also have nutrient absorption issues.  If you've been on a high-sugar diet for such a long time you might have SIBO.  You might also have insufficient stomach acid (meat and fat requires more stomach acid to digest than carbs).  I'd look into those.

Can you tell me which filtering software is blocking my site?  I can't imagine what I've said that would flag this place for illegal drugs...sheesh.

JS

May 10, 2011
1:52 pm
Mike T Nelson
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Hi there! LOVED the article on Metabolic Flexibility. Awesome stuff and very closely matches my thoughts. I am in the process of finishing up my PhD and my dissertation topic is Metabolic Flexibility. I am more than happy to help with any questions here!

I can find the study, but one of my favs looked at high calories and very very low calories (attempting to do a fasting type comparison) in a double blinded manner for 48 hours. The subject ate this paste like food to attempt to make it a blinded experiment. What they found was that they handled the semi-fasting condition really well. Take home point--the mind is a factor in all of this too, not just the physiology.

Fasting has been shown (I think it was Spark et al, but I would need to check) to increase Met Flex in people who were INflexible. Makes perfect sense---since you are are fasting, you either burn body or die since glycogen stores are very limited compared to fats; so fasting is one way to increase Met Flex.

As to Dr Sears ideas, perhaps, but it still does not jive for me. Keep in mind that by adding more fat (even as fish oil), the body will adjust to burn more fat; just like adding more carbs it adjusts to carbs. This has been shown repeatedly on acute RER studies. Fish oil is great, but maybe it was the result of just eating more fat?

Hope that helps a bit. Anything else I can do to help answer questions, please repost your questions.

Thanks!
Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

May 12, 2011
8:05 am
DJSapp
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@Paleo Newbie: you're describing a lot of the feelings that I had when I first started up on this. A quick question, how much water are you drinking a day?

Whatever you answer, that's probably not enough. Drink more water. I got dehydration headaches and sluggishness frequently when I was coming off the coffee/coke/mt. dew habit/monster energy drink habit. Burning fat and proper digestion takes a lot of water to keep it all working nicely.

May 12, 2011
7:08 pm
CrossFit Tri-Cities
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[...] The Science Behind The “Low Carb Flu”, and How To Regain Your Metabolic Flexibility [...]

May 16, 2011
11:31 am
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Mike:

Thanks for contributing!  I'm glad to see you here, and I'm glad to know that I've mostly got things right so far.  I'll have to look into the fasting connection, and into the low-calorie connection.  I'm a day and a half into a fast right now...and yes, I'd obviously be dead if I couldn't beta-oxidize for energy, because given all the skiing I did yesterday I can't have a lot of glycogen left.

Incidentally, you can read Mike's blog here, at Extreme Human Performance.  

DJSapp:

That's a great point, and here's a hint: if you're hungry but the thought of eating any specific food makes you not want to eat it, you're probably dehydrated.  Drink a big glass of water and see how you feel.

JS

May 18, 2011
11:28 am
Frustrated. | Mark&#
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[...] the first week, so I could get a feel for what to eat. I also found this article really helpful: The Science Behind The “Low Carb Flu”, and How To Regain Your Metabolic Flexibility &#45... I think I just needed some time to fix my metabolism, it's a big adjustment for your body to [...]

May 19, 2011
2:48 pm
Jeffrey of Troy
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Great site! Clicked through from Dr. Mike Eades..

re: toxins from fat loss.
Yes, we all have a ton of pollution in us, and the body puts it in fat to try to minimize the damage; so, supporting your body's natural detoxification pathways is a must when reducing bodyfat percentage (fiber, water, walking, magnesium, probiotics, digestive enzymes).

May 19, 2011
4:23 pm
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Jeffrey:

Thanks!  I wish Dr. Eades would post more often...but maybe that's why all his posts are so good.  I know that limiting myself to once a week makes my articles better.

As far as fat loss = detox, do you have any references for that?  I keep hearing about it, but I haven't found any references that confirm that's what's actually happening.  It seems like autophagy (i.e. long-term fasting or protein restriction) would be more likely to result in such a reaction, since that involves breaking down tissues as opposed to just pulling some stored fat out of a cell.  I'm very interested in learning what's actually happening.

JS

May 19, 2011
5:20 pm
JMH
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This is also just my experience, one data point, etcetera...
But I've been sick my entire life. I was given my first prescription for some kind of oral opiate at eight. (Attempting Paleo, but difficult with a college caf, assorted. Yesterday, I ate sushi rolls that I'd peeled the rice off of, because I'm so metabolically deranged, I'd really keep it as low carb as possible right now until my Crohn's is under control.)
Moral of my story... I know when I'm burning body fat, because I get vaguely stoned. If I have various flavours of opiates shoved in my fat cells, I can only imagine what else other people have hidden there. I would suspect, though have no evidence for this, that the people with the worst and longest lasting symptoms are the sickest, and thusly have taken the most medication.
My $.02, YMMV.

May 19, 2011
6:51 pm
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JMH:

Interesting!  I have a strong feeling of deja vu, like
this subject has come up before and I'm forgetting some important piece
of research.

I see a lot of interesting anecdotal evidence, like yours, but I'm still looking for a mechanism by which things might actually end up being stored and recalled in this way.  Do opiates end up packaged into chylomicrons?  Etc.

JS

May 22, 2011
8:25 am
Bruce Wilson
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Do you have suggestion for seniors to help restore body flexibility?

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