Migraines are a painful and widespread problem. They afflict an estimated 1 billion people worldwide, including about 38 million in the US alone. There are all sorts of purported remedies for them, but a team of scientists in Italy has identified what it believes could be a simple way to avoid the debilitating headaches.
The answer? A diet low in carbohydrates. The scientists believe avoiding carbs allows your brain to work more efficiently and reduces migraine-causing inflammation.
The team, led by Cherubino Di Lorenzo of Sapienza University of Rome, looked specifically at the effects of a “very-low-calorie ketogenic diet.” The typical ketogenic diet, which is high in fat and low in carbohydrates, was first introduced in 1921 as a way to treat drug-resistant epilepsy. The low-calorie version, however, is low in both fat and carbohydrates.
The team first had the idea to study the diet’s effect on migraines after being alerted to the case of twin sisters who found their frequent migraines disappeared after they started on a ketogenic diet for weight loss. They decided to examine its effects by studying two groups of overweight, female migraine sufferers who were seeing a dietician to aid with weight loss.
One group was put on a very-low-calorie ketogenic diet for one month, and then switched to a standard low-calorie diet. The other group did the full six months entirely on a standard low-calorie diet. The scientists found that members of the first group saw their headaches “significantly reduced after the first month of diet,” but as they transitioned to the standard diet, their headaches worsened (though they remained improved from the initial baseline). The other group only started seeing significant decreases in the number of days with headaches after the third month.
“We concluded that the ketogenic diet was the reason for that improvement,” Di Lorenzo recently told ResearchGate. A further study also found that a high-fat ketogenic diet helped reduce long-lived “cluster headaches” in non-overweight patients.
When the body isn’t provided with carbs, it produces so-called “ketone bodies.” These molecules act as a fuel replacement for several kinds of cells, including neurons. They provide “more energy than glucose, but less oxidative stress, so the brain and the muscles work more efficiently,” Di Lorenzo said. They also have an anti-inflammatory effect. “This is also important because ‘sterile inflammation’—inflammation caused by damage rather than by microbes—is at the heart of migraines,” Di Lorenzo explained.
The results are far from conclusive, and the team cannot definitively say that the ketone bodies are solely responsible for the improvement in migraines. But Di Lorenzo believes the results of a low-carb diet are encouraging enough that they deserve further study. He and his team recommend the low-calorie ketogenic diet to overweight patients looking for a migraine remedy (provided they don’t have a condition that prevents them from metabolizing fat, such as type 1 diabetes) and to anyone who suffers from drug-resistant migraine or cluster headaches.
The image at the top of this post was taken by Gerd Altmann and shared under the Creative Commons license on Pixabay.