We’ve previously argued that people with migraines should try a ketogenic diet. There are two reasons: (1) ketones can evade certain mitochondrial defects which might cause migraines, and (2) ketones reduce glutamate levels, and glutamate toxicity is implicated in migraines.
Reader Rob Sacks has had lifelong migraine headaches. As an experiment he turned to desperate measures – a long fast. Here’s his story:
I fasted for 30 days. When I say “fast” I mean that I stopped eating all food. I consumed only water and occasionally sea salt and potassium tablets.
As part of the fast I stopped taking Imitrex which I had been using almost daily to control my migraines. I did this because I thought Imitrex was increasing the number of migraines due to a rebound effect. I also stopped consuming caffeine to which I was addicted.
As the fast went on, my migraines lasted for shorter periods of time, and they became less painful.
By day 23 I became free of headaches. There was still some sort of migraine activity — I could often feel the sensations that in all my previous life, had always been followed by a headache — but no headache resulted. Judging from what I could feel, there is a cascade of events that leads to a migraine, and the metabolic changes induced by the fast were interrupting the cascade at a certain point.
I was quite happy with this result and continued the fast as long as I could in the hopes that this would increase the chances that the change would be permanent.
Unfortunately, after the fast ended, the headaches gradually came back. I think this happened because after the first few post-fast meals, I made no effort to keep my diet ketogenic. An intense craving for fruit developed and once the danger of refeeding syndrome seemed to be over, I gave in. This was interesting because before the fast I had been on low carb diets since 2007 and hadn’t craved carbs in years.
When I saw the gains slipping away, I fasted again for two days to get back into ketosis as quickly as possible. Then I started following a diet similar to those used by neurologists at Johns Hopkins to treat children with epilepsy, with calorie restriction, frequent meals, and a ratio of fat to protein (by weight) of four to one. After two days of this diet, my headaches stopped again. That was only 48 hours ago but I’m sure the diet is working because I challenged myself last night with a sure-fire migraine trigger by staying up past my bedtime to watch the eclipse. Normally this would create a debilitating headache, but the only result was a slight migrainy feeling that was easily controlled with two aspirin. Before the fast, aspirin had no apparent effect on my migraines.
The next step will be to try more moderate diets and find the least extreme one that controls the headaches.
The fast proved that migraine headaches can be stopped by the metabolic changes induced by fasting. Hopefully I can find a way to make that same metabolic state occur permanently.
Incidentally, the fast had some unexpected beneficial effects. A bad varicose vein is dramatically improved, and a teary eye problem (which I think was caused by a clogged tear duct, and which I previously controlled with large amounts of vitamin C) has resolved almost completely.
I think this kind of experimentation is extremely important. Through experiments like Rob’s we can learn more about the causes of these seemingly incurable health conditions and find dietary and nutritional methods for healing or mitigating them. Experiments in lab mice are important, but the mice don’t tell us what they’re experiencing!
Rob lost 22 pounds during his 30-day fast, equivalent to 2200 calories per day if taken equally from protein and fat. Such an extended loss of lean tissue can be quite dangerous. If he had taken coconut oil or medium chain triglycerides during his fast, he would have conserved lean tissue mass and might have actually increasing ketone availability.
Fortunately it looks like ketogenic dieting is the key to Rob’s migraine relief, so extreme fasting should not be necessary.
Fasting does have therapeutic actions apart from its elevation of ketones. For instance, it promotes autophagy. It is possible that the fasting, not the ketones, was responsible for Rob’s cure of his varicose vein and teary eyes.
Rob might wish to experiment with protein restriction and other techniques for autophagy promotion, in order to see if they might also be beneficial in addition to ketosis.
Also, experimenting with micronutrients is important. Magnesium and riboflavin are often helpful for migraines.
Good luck Rob! Keep us posted.