Can This Diet Cure Your Migraines?

This little-known diet may be good for more than just giving you shredded abs.


From juice cleanses to intermittent fasting, diet trends tend to come and go. But one that hung around for a surprisingly long time was the low fat diet. In the 80s, 90s and even the early 2000’s, there was a widespread belief that eating fat made you fat. For nearly three decades, the supermarket aisles were filled with products labeled ‘low fat’ and ‘fat-free’ – and everyone was buying them! Of course, people eventually became aware that these products were packed with sugar and that fat actually wasn’t the enemy.


Fast forward to 2017 and the tables have completely turned. High fat, high protein and low carb eating plans like the Paleo or Bulletproof diet are currently all the rage. But the lesser known high fat, low carb diet that’s currently really popular in fitness circles is the ketogenic diet. It was even one of the most Googled diets of 2016! Similar to the Atkins diet, it involves lowering your carb intake to push your body into a metabolic state called ketosis. This is where the body switches from burning carbs as its primary source of energy to burning fat. In consuming a high amount of fat (and moderate amount of protein), the idea is that you’ll remain satiated even though you’re skimping on the carbs.

Image: iStock
Image: iStock

If it all sounds a bit extreme and ‘bro science’, that’s because it is. But according to new research, the ketogenic diet may be useful for more than just shedding fat. A study from the Sapienza University in Rome showed that the ketogenic diet may work wonders for migraines. The diet was originally created almost a century ago to treat drug-resistant epilepsy in children. This is because ketones help to block the high level of glutamate (found in MSG and other processed foods) that can trigger epilepsy.

Curious about whether the same principle could be used to treat migraines, the Italian researchers originally ran a study back in 2013. They found that the diet reduced migraine frequency in 90% of their test subjects, but they weren’t sure why this was the case. In their follow-up study, they learned that the ketone bodies dampen the neural inflammation that causes both migraines and epilepsy.

In the classic ketogenic diet, the fat that’s taken in with the food is the source for the production of ketone bodies. These have an anti-inflammatory effect, which is important because ‘sterile inflammation’ – inflammation caused by damage rather than by microbes – is at the heart of migraines.

-Study lead author, Cherubino De Lorenzo – via

So, what’s the downside?

high fat diet
Image: iStock

Less migraines and shredded abs – sounds amazing, right? But as someone who’s actually tried this type of diet (and yes, I did lose body fat) I can tell you that it’s very, very hard. To go into a state of ketosis, you have to eat less than 20 grams of carbs per day. To put this into perspective, a cup of broccoli contains around 8 grams of carbs. As the body enters ketosis, many people experience this lovely little thing called the ‘keto flu.’ For around 3 to 5 days, you may feel weak, dizzy, fatigued and generally just on another planet. Ironically, I also experienced a lot of headaches  during this stage.

Once you get out of this transition process, you tend to feel really alert, focused and energised– which is great! But the thing is, any time you go over that carb threshold (accidentally or otherwise) you go out of ketosis and have to go through the process again. Plus, on this type of diet many people tend to eat foods like cheese, bacon and butter in excess: which long-term obviously isn’t amazing for your cholesterol levels.

Luckily, you may not have to go full keto to ward off the dreaded migraines. The researchers aren’t sure whether the ketone production is the only reason the ketogenic diet works so well for migraines. It could also be due to the fact that in following this type of diet, you’re less likely to consume some of the common migraine triggers — including MSG, caffeine, alcohol, sugar and artificial sweeteners. So, instead of jumping on the keto bandwagon, it may be worth chatting to your doc about cutting some of these foods out of your diet.