Carb Cycling: What Is It and Should You DO it?

Carb Cycling: What Is It and Should You DO it?

The ketogenic diet generally has a favorable impact on hormones. Case in point: Insulin resistance is often seen with hormone imbalance, but a reduction in carbs in your diet aids in the reduction of insulin levels in the body and thus supports insulin sensitivity—which can help prevent or reverse diabetes. Additionally, hormones are produced from fat, so a high-fat diet aids in hormone production. This is why many people see fantastic outcomes using a ketogenic diet to support PCOS, hypothalamic amenorrhea, and infertility. 

However, individuals who are at a low body fat percentage, or who are over-stressing the body with mental demands, calorie restriction, intermittent fasting, or too much exercise, are ramping up their allostatic load and setting themselves up for declining leptin levels—which, over time, can drive anxiety, insomnia, and hunger. And because leptin has a significant influence on the thyroid and ovaries, individuals with hypothyroidism, and menstruating women leading a high-stress lifestyle who don’t carry extra body fat, are especially susceptible to leptin imbalances when they enter ketosis. This can interfere with thyroid hormone production, throw off a woman’s cycle, and suppress hormone production.

When too low, leptin requires a surge of glucose followed by insulin to tell the body it’s being adequately fed and ultimately “safe,” supporting a shift back into healthy regulatory function versus reactive survival mode. The good news: This can be accomplished by carb cycling.

When to consider carb cycling. 

Not everyone needs to carb cycle, but you may be a prime candidate if any of these symptoms or characteristics apply to you:

  • You are at a low or healthy percent body fat
  • You have experienced an unfavorable change in cycle length since starting keto
  • You are dealing with insomnia
  • You are not satisfied and constantly hungry
  • You feel anxious, wired
  • You experience heart palpitations
  • Your thyroid levels have declined since going keto

What does carb cycling look like on a ketogenic diet?

Carb cycling on a keto diet means you are intentionally increasing carbohydrate intake during specific times of the month to ensure that leptin levels don’t get depleted and the body maintains an active metabolic balance—as opposed to increasing the body’s stress response, causing potential imbalances in the body. 

For the majority of your keto diet, you’ll be consuming somewhere in the range of 30 to 60 grams of total carbs per day, give or take a bit, depending on your activity levels. But when you carb cycle, you’ll be consuming an additional 45 to 60 grams of carbs per day—for a total of 75 to 120 grams of carbs—for two days of your cycle. 

Typically, I recommend carb cycling on days 19 and 20 of your cycle (which is five days post-ovulation), when leptin levels are naturally the lowest. This is also when your body is supposed to be making the most progesterone, but often, women who are under a lot of stress aren’t able to produce enough progesterone due to a phenomenon called pregnenolone steal, which diverts the building blocks of progesterone to produce the stress hormone cortisol. Upping your carb intake at this time helps take some of the stress off your body so you’re able to produce appropriate levels of progesterone and enjoy overall hormonal balance. It’s also best to carb cycle in the evening to support serotonin and melatonin demands, and to help your body enter a parasympathetic rest-and-digest state. 

I recommend trying the above approach for a few cycles and seeing how you feel. (Using a period-tracking app like Clue can be incredibly helpful in determining where you are in your cycle.) But, if it doesn’t seem to be helping, you can experiment with carb cycling on days 1 and 2 of your menstrual cycle—which is the very start of your period and the other point in your cycle when leptin levels are lowest. This can be a nice way to support your body as it undergoes the process of shedding the uterine lining.

If you don’t get a period, you may follow the moon cycle, using the full moon to signify ovulation. Additionally, anyone can use carb cycling as a way to practice food freedom and schedule their “carb-ups” to correspond with social commitments or travel. If you are a postmenopausal woman or a man, simply carb cycle on the first two days of the month, or any other consecutive two-day period, and try to stay consistent.

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