Back before the keto diet became super trendy for weight loss, this high-fat, low-carb plan was created to help people suffering from epilepsy, a neurological disorder that causes abnormal brain activity.
Now, some researchers think it could help people with another condition: chronic migraines.
Millions of women in America suffer from migraines, and treatments such as OTC pain medication don’t always work. So the fact that a simple lifestyle change might ease the pain and the debilitating side effects of migraines is welcome news. (These skull crushers can last for days and be accompanied by disabling nausea, vomiting, and light sensitivity.)
To find out how the diet could potentially benefit migraine sufferers, Health spoke to Mayo Clinic migraine expert Jennifer Robblee, MD, a member of the American Headache Society. She tells us that diet in general often comes into play when doctors think about ways to treat people who frequently get migraines.
But when it comes to the keto diet specifically, “the research is still quite young there. There’s a lot for us to learn,” Dr. Robblee says. While going keto might help you if you suffer from migraines, experts aren’t sure why.
Changing a person’s diet might help keep chronic migraines at bay. Yet right now, not enough data exists for experts to make specific recommendations. “Ketogenic diet is one that has been looked at, [but] right now there’s no one diet that has enough research for us to recommend it,” Dr. Robblee explains.
“The ketogenic diet affects your metabolism. Are you having improvements because of the weight loss? Is it the ketosis itself? That’s still an unknown,” Dr. Robblee says. Ketosis is the state a person’s body goes into on the keto diet, forcing their system to burn fat rather than carbs for energy (and leading to weight loss and other health benefits, keto adherents say).
“One hypothesis is that, ultimately, you’re doing a diet that has less processed foods,” says Dr. Robblee. The keto diet focuses on whole, unprocessed products, such as eggs, fatty fish, low-carb veggies, and low-sugar fruits.
Research published in 2017 drew a link between the keto diet and migraine prevention. But the research doesn’t explain exactly what the relationship between the two is. That research called for randomized control studies, and Dr. Robblee says we definitely need these moving forward.
Dr. Robblee says the keto diet might benefit migraine patients the same way it benefits people with epilepsy. “Both conditions have abnormal function in the brain. There is some sort of overlap. [In migraine patients,] you have this difference in the electric signal in the brain.”
Some treatment options for migraines are also used to treat epilepsy, Dr. Robblee adds. Among these is a vagal nerve stimulator, which can reduce the number of seizures an epileptic person has. (The vagus nerve connects the brain to organs in the neck, chest, and abdomen.)
Bottom line: If you’re suffering from migraines consistently, it might be worth your while to try going keto. It could help—though right now, science is just not quite sure why.