There are some amazing diets that have been used for migraines and headaches including the oligoantigenic diet. But ketosis is an easier way to go about supporting our brain so that it can repair and stop triggering headaches. In this article, I will be discussing 3 amazing reasons to go into ketosis with the ketogenic diet for migraines.
What are the ketogenic diet, ketosis and ketones?
The ketogenic diet is a diet that makes the body enter into ketosis where it begins relying on ketones(fat) for energy more than sugar/glucose.
This is done through a ketogenic style diet which focuses primarily on fats and proteins as well as low to no sugar vegetables.
The break down will generally end up being under 5% of your total food containing carbohydrates.
The foods to largely avoid on the ketogenic diet include:
Starchy vegetables like potatoes, roots and tubers
High sugar fruit over the daily amount
Processed and packaged foods
It is important to dispel the myth that Fat = heart disease
This was a highly marketed tactic used by the food industry to sell low fat and fat free foods that ended up causing the same problems they were marketed to protect against like obesity.
What you do want to do is avoid rancid fats, excessive PUFAs and omega 6s as well as conventionally raised meats.
Eat your foods whole like nature created them. Every single cell and neuron in our body and brain is made of fat and requires fat. All of our sex and stress hormones are made from cholesterol, we need it.
Why is ketosis so beneficial for the brain and specifically the migraine brain?
A study with migraine sufferers put on the ketogenic diet found that 90% of them had a reduction in the frequency of their migraines.
Ketogenic diets have been used for over a century to treat patients with epilepsy because of its effect on the brain. Epilepsy is closely related to migraine with aura. New research is starting to find that ketogenic diets are useful for more than just migraine and epilepsy but also things like cancer.
Reason #1 Ketones feed the brain
Ketones are an essential fuel for the brain we have relied on since the very beginning of our evolution.
Our liver stores sugar/glucose so that it can maintain a smooth supply to the brain but it can only do this for about 24 hours in a healthy individual. After 24 hours the reserve is depleted and the body has to switch over.
It begins taking the fat we have in our body and breaking it down into ketones which then circulate in the blood that brain uses for fuel. Ketones are brain fuel.
Ketones have been found to reduce glutamate levels which is one of the main neurotransmitters implicated in migraines. They have also been found to reduce oxidative stress which is the one common connection behind all migraines.
Reason #2 Ketogenic diets balance blood sugar
One of the most important benefits from my perspective coaching those with migraines is that the ketogenic diet balances blood sugar.
It may also allow you to go longer between meals with less strain on your blood sugar levels.
As we know, skipping meals or fasting is the largest reported trigger of migraines partly because of how it affects our blood sugar levels.
In a normal and healthy individual we can make the transition between burning sugar/glucose and burning ketones fairly easily with little aggravation to the body.
But in a metabolically compromised individual and especially those with migraines, missing a meal is a recipe for disaster partly because the transition from burning glucose/sugar to burning fat is enough of a strain on the body that it pushes us over our threshold.
Instead, on a ketogenic diet we continue burning fats from one meal to the next, leaving our blood sugar with few spikes and drops, giving our body ease in one of the pillars of brain health, blood sugar balance.
Not only does it balance our blood sugar which takes a massive burden off of our brains, inflammation and hormones but it also helps fight obesity which is an independent risk factor for migraines.
See our video on ketones and migraines here:
Reason #3 Ketogenic diets done the right way remove many migraine triggers
A ketogenic diet is not only a great way to feed the brain ketones and balance our blood sugar but done right it is also perfect for removing trigger foods.
Some of the most common trigger foods that would or should be removed are:
Grains especially gluten containing
Low fat dairy
Ideally during the ketogenic diet we are eating high quality pastured and grass fed meats along with low carbohydrate vegetables and then healthy poultry, dairy, nuts, seeds and oils depending on your individual triggers and what you are sensitive to.
When is the ketogenic diet not right for us?
As with any “diet” there are some situations where ketosis may not be right for us and especially long term.
We need to understand that our bodies and migraines are individual to ourselves and this is the best way to go about fixing our pain.
Just because one migraine sufferer does great on a vegan or vegetarian diet doesn’t mean you will. Same goes with ketogenic diets.
4 areas we want to figure out for ourselves with our own bodies and guided help are:
1. Depending on your genetic profile and if your ancestors are closer to the equator or from the colder more polar regions you may process fats differently. If your ancestors are from africa, the middle east or southeast asia type areas where it is warm all year long, you will do better converting plant fats into the animal fats our body uses. If your ancestors are from polar regions where the ground freezes in the winter, you’ll likely not be as good at this plant to animal fat conversion and you will be better suited for eating animal fats and saturated fat.
2. The same applies with some genetic predispositions to hold onto fat instead of burn it. This may be influenced by the foods that you eat which try to store any extra food that you eat as fat incase you go through a famine or period of no food. Evolutionarily this is an adaptation but may not be the best for you right now.
3. We also want to understand that fiber is an essential part of feeding our gut microbiome, the 100 trillion bacteria in our gut that keep us alive, feed us nutrients and help us function. Fibre is the food of these bacteria and removing all of our fibre may not be the best idea which is why eating plenty of vegetables is important.
4. How strong is our keto flu?
The transition between eating regular often high carb meals and ketosis can be rough. This is why it is not advised to do it without guidance and to not do it abruptly.
Ideally you would slowly transition by lowering your carbohydrates at each meal over days or weeks while increasing your proteins and fats until you enter ketosis naturally and can re assess or else you may run into what is called the “keto-flu.”
The keto flu is what happens during the transition stages between carbohydrate and ketone metabolism. In a normal healthy individual this may not be much at all and may just present as some cravings or moodiness. But in metabolically compromised individuals like those with migraines, it may temporarily aggravate your migraines, give you extreme cravings, mood swings, insomnia etc.
This is all part of the body “healing” as it readjusts to what it was evolutionarily always doing. We did not always have food available to us and especially not carbohydrates in such regular intervals like we do today.
But we have become largely dependant on carbohydrates and this has given us imbalances.
During this transition and into ketosis it’s important to understand that our body will first off dump lots of sodium and water weight. Some people may lose up to 10 pounds of excess water that their body has been holding onto and even though this is great for weight loss it also comes with sodium loss so we want to make sure we replace our minerals like sodium, potassium and magnesium through something like this electrolyte supplement.
Along with the loss of minerals our body may even drop thyroid hormones to protect itself in this transition so we want to be careful if we have any thyroid problems or slow metabolism.
And along with the drop in use of insulin because we are not spiking our blood sugar our body may also increase cortisol levels which may give us more energy and clarity but can give us issues if we have any kidney or gut problems to begin with so we always want to be careful.
How to do a ketogenic diet with migraines the right way
First and foremost we have to make sure we get assessed by a nutrition specialist to understand how our body will react to these changes and any precautions we need to take.
After that we want to make sure we are covering any holes in our nutrition and supporting our transition.
If you exercise you may want to supplement with creatine to help keep your muscles from burning glucose/sugar.
Slowly increase your fat intake from healthy animal sources like pastured, grass fed and wild meats.
Slowly increase your healthy plant based sources of fats and make sure they are not rancid, hydrogenated or high in omega 6 like vegetable oil.
Supplement with MCT oil and coconut oil to help smooth out the transition because medium chain fats are broken down into energy quickly and easily.
Use fat sources like cold water fish, olive oil and nuts and seeds depending on what your body does well with.
Make sure to get high quality sleep to ease the transition and support your bodies detoxification as any weight and fat-trapped toxins get released.
Use foods like fibre and activated charcoal to make sure excessive toxins are bound up and transported out of the body when released.
While transitioning use lighter exercise.
Always rotate any specific diet as your body does not fit into any dietary mold and your needs are your own. Going out of ketosis and onto carbohydrates may be beneficial temporarily especially for hormones and is often done through cyclic ketogenic diets.
Continue avoiding any known trigger foods as your gut and immune tolerance is specific to you and making sure you stick to whole foods will ensure the best results. Avoid highly processed and packaged foods as their chances of containing rancid/oxidized fats are high.
By following these simple principles and guidelines such as those in the food triggers guide you will have the best chance at achieving a successful ketogenic diet, transitioning to ketosis and feeding your brain with what it needs to stabilize and heal.
For more information on food and migraine see our Food Triggers Guide here.
Do you have experience with the ketogenic diet and migraines? Let me know.