Keto and migraine: One migraineur's experience

I started on the keto diet out of desperation. In the fall of 2016, the migraines I’d had regularly over the past 10 were becoming more frequent and more debilitating. I would be out of commission twice a month for two or three days at a stretch, unable to move except to vomit and feeling as though an ice pick was boring into my eyebrow. Worst of all was the lack of control — plans I’d made had to be canceled, work had to be pushed back, any new commitments I made came with an asterisk. Even when I felt good, the fear that a migraine was lurking around the corner put a damper on things.

Niklas was frustrated, too — my migraines meant uncertainty for him as well. He read about the keto diet in an Italian study that showed that migraineurs who followed the diet had a sharp reduction in headaches. I was deeply skeptical — like many migraine sufferers, I was tired of hearing that if only you avoided certain foods, or kept better track of what you ate, or managed stress better, that the headaches would subside. Still, I was desperate. And Niklas was willing to try the diet with me.

We used the website Diet Doctor to help us plan meals and figure out food shopping lists. It was a big shift for us — red meat and bacon, which we ate very little of before, became staples. (So did avocados and macadamia nuts.) But, the diet seemed to work — in the first three weeks, I needed my triptan (preventive) medication just once or twice, as opposed to the usual two times a week. That early success, though, was fleeting. The migraines returned after those first few weeks. Niklas encouraged me to stay the course, and I did because keto had another significant benefit: more mental clarity. My thinking was sharper since I started on keto; brain fog had diminished. (A good, succinct explanation here on how that works.)

Over the next few months, I made two other big changes: I stopped taking the birth control pill and started going to acupuncture. By February 2017, my headaches were becoming less frequent. Naturally, this raised a big question: Which factor was responsible? Or, were they all helping? In April 2017, I had my last migraine for the next year and a half. It followed a carb-filled “cheat” dinner for my birthday. I stopped acupuncture in the summer of 2017 (though I'm still a big proponent of it), and still managed to stay headache-free.

I cannot say with certainty whether keto or stopping birth control deserves more credit for ending my migraines.My gut feeling is that both have played an important role. The case for keto is compelling: The ketone bodies produced through the keto diet have an anti-inflammatory effect; as with epilepsy, which keto has long been used to treat, inflammation is central to migraine. (The researcher behind the Italian study provides a great explanation and touches on how keto ‘fixes’ the energy deficit in the brain that migraineurs experience.) At the same time, hormones are also known to play a role in migraines. Yet in my case, I started having migraines before I went on birth control.

I could, of course, experiment by either stopping keto temporarily or going back on birth control. But I’m afraid to mess with a good thing. Not having migraines has changed my life. (I had one last October that seemed to be a fluke, in that I haven't had another since.) I am grateful every single day. While I know that migraine contributors are highly individual, I sincerely hope that sharing my own experience can help others who suffer.