Dr. Anthony Gustin is a board-certified sports chiropractor, functional medicine practitioner, entrepreneur, podcast host, and founder of Perfect Keto.
Migraines are no joke. Anyone who suffers from them knows just how debilitating the symptoms can be, including nausea or vomiting, severe pain, and sensitivity to light and noise. Migraines can prevent people from working or leaving their house and can decrease overall quality of life.
What are Migraines?
Here are some facts about migraines:
- Migraines are reccuring moderate to severe headaches, often including intense throbbing, that usually last anywhere between four to 72 hours at a time. They usually start on one side of the sufferer’s head and can spread to include both sides.
- Some people experience an aura, like a pursing flash of light, and fatigue right before a migraine comes on.
- Triggers for migraines can include changes in hormones, eating or drinking certain things, exercise, or stress.
Most medications for treating migraines are either for pain relief or to prevent or lessen the recurrence. However, each come with their possible side effects and aren’t guaranteed to be effective.
Let’s take a look at how inducing ketosis in the body through a ketogenic diet might be able to help those with migraines:
The Ketogenic Diet for Epilepsy Vs Migraines
The ketogenic diet was originally created to help prevent seizures in epilepsy patients who weren’t responding to medication. It allowed patients to mimic fasting (which has been found to reduce their amount of seizures) while still getting to eat—since the high fat and very-low-carb intake of ketogenic starves the body of glucose.
Since since, the ketogenic diet been utilized for not only helping people lose weight but also in addressing conditions like brain tumors, autism, and various neurological and brain disorders—and that includes migraines.
There are actually some interesting commonalities between migraines and epilepsy:
Doctors often prescribed anti-seizure medications (originally meant for epileptics) to migraine sufferers. That’s because these medications often block the neurotransmitter glutamate.
Glutamate is found in high amounts in patients with both epilepsy and migraines.
Ketones, which are created in the body when someone is in ketosis, are able to block high amounts of glutamate. [*]
Therefore, just like ketosis has benefits for epileptics, it may have a beneficial effect for those suffering from migraines too. The ketone bodies that are created as a result of ketosis—when the body turns from carbohydrates to fat for energy—act as a replacement for the energy that fuels many types of cells, including neurons of the brain that are thought to be responsible for migraine attacks.
Benefits of Ketosis for Migraines
Although plenty of anecdotal evidence exists around the ketogenic diet being helpful for migraines, we look forward to more conclusive studies being done on this subject in the future. That being said, there are some interesting recent findings:
One study involved two 47-year-old twin sisters who had been suffering from around 5-6 migraine attacks every month. The women’s migraines lasted up to 72 hours and included the common symptoms experienced with migraines.
The sisters had also tried several preventative migraine treatments, but had stopped using them either because they didn’t work or caused weight gain. But when the sisters started a medically supervised ketogenic diet, they not only lost weight but also stopped having migraines while their bodies were in ketosis. [*]
Another short-term study had migraine sufferers divided into two subgroups, one group following a ketogenic diet and the other group following a standard low-calorie diet. The conclusion was that the ketogenic diet helped alleviate headache and also reduce the amount of drugs taken, while the standard low-calorie diet was found to be ineffective for migraines during the observation. [*]
Cherubino di Lorenzo, a neurologist at the Sapienza University of Rome, has also noted in an article that he saw dramatic improvements in patients’ headaches only when they were in ketosis.
Plus, ketones can help reduce hunger as well as insulin and glucose issues. [*]
As mentioned in the study with twins, a common side effect of most drugs for migraines is weight gain. What’s bad about that is increased weight can also make symptoms worse. In fact, obesity might increase migraine risk by 81%. [*]
Blood Sugar and Migraines
It might not just be ketones themselves that help migraines.
Migraine patients often experience problems in how their insulin and blood sugar levels respond to sugar intake. Therefore, the very-low-carb aspect of the nutritional ketosis combined with ketones as an alternative fuel source could contribute to migraine improvement.
Ketogenic Foods for Migraines
Since diet is a factor in migraine results, let’s look at some of the top foods to avoid for those with migraines. It’s important to note that certain food triggers may vary depending on the individual.
Foods to Avoid
Common foods to avoid for preventing migraines include:
- Aged cheeses: These and other aged or ripe foods like aged meats, red wine, olives, ripe avocados, and red and balsamic vinegars, contain tyramine—one of the most well-known food triggers for migraines.
- Caffeine: although caffeine can be helpful for stopping migraines and regular consumption doesn’t cause them, caffeine withdrawal can be a trigger.
- Aspartame, an artificial sweetener often in the form of NutraSweet or Equal.
- Sulfites, which are in most wines.
- Nitrites and nitrates, which are found in cold cuts, bacon, and other processed proteins. (Most processed meats are on our list of foods to avoid.)
- Yellow #6, the food dye used in a lot of packaged foods like Mountain Dew and Doritos.
- Pickled foods like dill pickles, okra, beets, peppers, and squash.
- Bananas: Bananas as well as citrus fruits contain histamine, which can be triggers for headaches.
- Foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG): Remember how we mentioned glutamate above and how it’s high in those with migraines? MSG, which is used in some restaurant and packaged foods, is the sodium salt of glutamate.
- Foods with yeast like soft pretzels, pizza crusts, and sourdough bread.
Thankfully, following a ketogenic diet automatically helps in avoiding some top migraine-triggering foods, such as breads, fruits, and artificial foods. Eating ketogenic allows us to get back to basics and eat foods with limited added ingredients, so it’s easier to know what you’re getting with each meal or snack. For more ideas on what to eat for ketogenic success, make sure to check out our full ketogenic diet food list as well as the meal plans and recipes from our dear friend at healthfulpursuit.com.
Take Away Message
Inducing nutritional ketosis through a ketogenic diet may offer a way to greatly reduce the severity and frequency of attacks for migraine sufferers—as well as facilitate weight loss, which itself is beneficial for migraine sufferers.