Does a Keto Diet Help Reduce Migraine Frequency and Severity?
Migraines can be very painful and frustrating, and many people have experienced at least one migraine episode in their lives.
Episodes vary wildly in their frequency. They can occur from once a year or less often, to a few times per month, to almost daily.
They affect different people’s lives to a different extent, but if you have ever suffered from a migraine, it’s more than likely that you don’t want them to be a part of your life.
Is there a link between the food you eat and migraines, though?
Can your diet affect migraines’ frequency and severity?
Can the keto diet help you have fewer migraines and make them less strong?
We’ll discuss these questions and more in this article, so for all of the details on food, keto, and migraines, read on.
What Causes Migraines?
There are different types of migraine. The most common one is called ‘migraine without aura’. Up to 90% of the people who have migraine experience this type.
The causes of migraines are not yet fully understood, however, there are certain factors that seem to play a role.
Foods That Can Trigger Migraines
There is a clearly established link between some foods and the occurrence of migraines.
While you certainly will not have a migraine each time you eat a potentially triggering food, it’s important to identify your triggers and avoid them.
Of course, they’ll be different for different people, but there are some that can be particularly problematic for many.
Here are some of them:
- Foods containing sulfites, such as wine or pickled food.
- Alcohol, and especially beer, champagne, wine, and scotch whiskey.
- Foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG), such as soy sauce, some seasoning mixes, Asian food, some pre-cooked food.
- Some sweeteners, such as aspartame. Even stevia can be a trigger for some people.
- Aged cheese.
- Foods containing nitrites and nitrates, such as deli meats, hot dogs, salami, bacon, etc…
- Foods containing yeast, such as beer, some types of bread, donuts, vinegar, ketchup, etc…
- Smoked fish.
These foods are some of the most common triggers. Of course, they won’t be a trigger for everyone, and many people might identify other trigger foods that aren’t on this list.
Identifying your own trigger foods requires a lot of self-observation and attention to what you’re eating. However, with keto, that will be much easier to do, as you’d anyway need to log the food you’re eating.
Having a food log at hand makes it much easier to go back to it later and try to find the cause of a migraine episode.
Some people report that dairy and/or gluten can also trigger migraines for them, while others have no problem with either of those.
The ketogenic diet is naturally gluten-free, as none of the keto staples have gluten, but if you want to be strict about it, you might need to look into possible cross-contamination from other foods (check the label for information on allergens).
As for dairy, the best way to determine whether it has an effect on your migraines (or on your digestion or general health) would be to limit it completely for 3-4 weeks and then to slowly reintroduce different dairy products, first in small amounts, and then by gradually increasing the quantities if you experience no side effects.
Other Migraine Triggers
Of course, migraine triggers are not just limited to food. Some other migraine triggers are:
- Not getting enough sleep
- Hormone fluctuations (for women in particular)
- Stress: physical or psychological (too much exercise, stress at work, etc…)
- Strong fragrances (f.e. in cosmetics or in cleaning supplies)
- Spending too much time in front of a screen
- Having too much caffeine
- Caffeine withdrawal
- Dehydration or electrolyte imbalances
- Extreme fatigue
- Light that is too strong or flickering
- Skipping meals if your body is not used to it
- Changing weather
Everyone has different triggers and if you experience a migraine, it’s worth asking yourself what might have caused it, in order to be able to prevent it next time.
Can The Keto Diet Be Beneficial To People Who Suffer From Migraines?
Yes, the ketogenic diet could potentially benefit people who have migraines. Although there isn’t enough conclusive research on the topic at the moment, the existing studies look promising.
Researchers are now starting to look into that question in depth. Plus, based on many people’s experiences, i.e. on anecdotal evidence, it seems that the ketogenic lifestyle can indeed be one of the good strategies for managing migraines.
Originally developed for epilepsy, the keto diet has a number of benefits for the health of the brain (1).
Of course, epilepsy and migraines are very different conditions, but both are neurological brain disorders, and they even respond to similar medication sometimes.
The effects of a ketogenic diet on people who experience migraines are not yet fully understood, and more research is needed in order to determine the mechanism of action by which a ketogenic diet can be helpful, however, we’re now beginning to understand the possible links between the two.
One of the benefits of a ketogenic diet is lowering overall inflammation, which, in turn, helps you maintain optimal brain health and performance.
This is supposedly one of the reasons the keto diet can help Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease patients and can be hugely beneficial for migraine sufferers, too.
Barbanti et al. have suggested in their paper published in 2017 that a ketogenic diet might help control brain excitability and inflammation, which, in turn, could help migraine patients experience fewer episodes overall once they switch to keto (2).
He is also pointing out that further investigation and controlled studies are necessary in order to understand the exact role a ketogenic diet can play in the management of migraines.
Using mostly ketones as a fuel source (which, as noted, helps control inflammation), combined with an improved blood sugar control, might be key for preventing migraines from occurring, as well as lessening their severity.
Di Lorenzo, M.D., Ph.D., one of the most prominent researchers currently working on the effect the ketogenic diet can have on migraines, points out that each ketone molecule provides the body and the brain with more energy at the cost of less oxidative stress, compared to glucose. This, in turn, helps both the brain and the muscles be more efficient (3).
One of the unfortunate side effects of many of the different drugs used for migraine prevention and control (such as antiepileptics, antidepressants, beta-blockers, and others) is weight gain, and excessive weight affects migraines negatively (4).
This creates a closed circle, which is what motivates researchers to look for prevention strategies that address both issues at hand.
Losing weight might be beneficial on its own, as being overweight is associated with experiencing migraines more often and the keto diet is one of the best weight loss diets out there.
As you could already see, it’s not just about successful weight loss, though migraine sufferers who lost weight successfully with the help of a ketogenic diet experienced fewer migraine episodes compared to those who lost weight with another type of diet.
Anecdotal evidence is abundant. In many Facebook groups and online keto communities, people report suffering from migraines much less often than before, after starting a keto diet.
Although this cannot be used as definite proof, it definitely makes a strong case for at least giving the diet a try. And if you struggle with some specific aspects of it, or would like to discuss migraine-related topics, there are many communities to reach out to.
Di Lorenzo points out that not all types of headaches respond well to this type of diet. While migraines and cluster headaches can be successfully managed with the help of a ketogenic diet, his team has found out that for tension-type headaches and cervicogenic headaches keto is not effective (5).
Migraines, The Ketogenic Diet, and Electrolyte Supplementation
An adequate electrolyte supplementation is essential when following a ketogenic diet, and even more so if you’re prone to having migraines.
An electrolyte imbalance could actually provoke a migraine, and preventing this from happening is quite easy. You just need to be extra careful with your electrolytes’ intake.
You might even need to supplement with higher doses than most people, and magnesium and sodium are particularly important.
Some people note that increasing their magnesium intake has been beneficial in preventing migraines, so consider this if you’re still having episodes on the keto diet.
A dose of 200 mg to 400 mg of magnesium is recommended for most people on a low-carb diet, but migraine sufferers might benefit from taking more than that.
Consider this: the American Migraine Foundation recommends doses of about 400-500 mg of magnesium for the prevention of migraines, and this is for people who aren’t following a carb-restricted diet (6).
Sometimes doses of above 600 mg daily, for at least a couple of months at a time, are recommended for migraine sufferers.
People who do keto have higher magnesium requirements than the general population, as electrolytes are flushed at a higher rate.
If you take into account all of this, staying in the 500-800 mg range daily would be a sensible approach for people prone to having migraines and who follow a ketogenic diet, and in Facebook groups and online forums many people state that this range has given them lasting relief from migraines.
Additionally, maintaining adequate sodium supplementation is essential, and especially if you’re fairly active, or live in a hotter climate (or both).
If you start developing a migraine, consider having 0.5 to 1 gram of salt with some water to see if this helps with symptoms. If it helps but they don’t go away completely, repeat once more.
As for potassium, it remains a constant. 4700 mg is the recommended daily dose for everyone.
Your best bet is to get it from food such as green leafy vegetables, avocado, meat, and so on. Supplementing with potassium is not advised.
While drinking enough water is essential for staying hydrated, you shouldn’t be drinking excessive amounts of water either, as you risk diluting the right concentration of electrolytes in your body and also flushing them out faster, as you’ll urinate more often. Drink to thirst and add salt to your water, if necessary.
Things To Consider If You Want To Try Keto For Migraines
Additionally, here are some quick tips for you:
#1. Keep an eye on your electrolytes
These are essential for anyone and will make the keto flu much milder, but if you’re prone to having migraines, it’s an absolute must to manage your electrolyte supplementation correctly.
#2. Limit the intake of trigger foods
Trigger foods can be very different for different people, and once you identify a food that has the potential to trigger migraines for you, it doesn’t mean that it’ll trigger one each time you have it, but it’s a good idea to avoid it altogether.
#3. Keep in mind that migraines might get worse before they get better
Your migraines will likely become much milder and less frequent once your body adapts to being in ketosis. Give it time.
#4. It’s a great solution for many people, but it won’t work for everyone
Although the majority of migraine sufferers who do keto report experiencing fewer migraines overall and in general feeling much better, unfortunately, that’s not the case for everyone.
If after giving it an honest try (of at least 4 weeks) you see that the keto diet isn’t helping, you might consider a different strategy.
The keto diet can be a successful strategy in preventing migraines, and many people report experiencing far fewer episodes on it than before.
Of course, it’s a big lifestyle change, and we understand that not everyone would like to follow a restrictive diet, but people who are particularly susceptible to migraines and find little relief in other forms of treatment, should definitely consider a ketogenic diet, combined with an adequate electrolyte supplementation (sodium from food and added salt, a daily magnesium supplement and getting enough potassium from food).
On top of that, the keto diet has many other health benefits that might make it a great option for you.
Do you suffer from migraines, and if yes, what are your triggers? Have you found a way to manage your migraine episodes successfully? Share your experience with us and our readers in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!
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