Keto headaches are a common side effect of the ketogenic diet. They can occur within one day to several weeks after beginning the diet, depending on your unique body and weight loss progress.
In order to determine how long keto headache symptoms last, you'll need to understand what triggers them in general:
Many people experience uncontrollable dizziness or lightheadedness associated with low blood sugar during extended periods without food intake; this is called hypoglycemia. This type of symptom usually goes away after eating a high-carb meal, such as some vegetables and fruit.
A headache from keto diet headaches can also be triggered by an intense workout or heavy physical activity. This is because your body breaks down sugar for fuel during exercise, leading to low blood sugar in the brain that results in symptoms of hypoglycemia.
In this article I’ll cover how to identify and effectively treat a keto headache. This article will cover the causes of keto headaches and how to treat them with a keto-friendly diet.
If you are new to Keto you might be asking yourself, "can keto cause headaches?"
Headaches on Keto are a very common side effect in the adjustment period to a low-carbohydrate diet. They are related to brain fog which is another common symptom in the early induction phase. In fact, Keto headaches are primarily due to the dietary changes from removing carbs.
In a typical diet your brain is fuelled by glucose/carbs; carbs cross the blood-brain barrier and power the neurons in your brain and nervous system and provide your body with energy.
When you start keto, you essentially stop eating carbs, which obviously reduces the supply of glucose to the brain and which can result in headaches and keto flu.
Other reasons for keto headaches include your diet being too low in fat, you might be dehydrated, as Keto requires you to drink plenty of water, far more than you would normally drink with a carb-rich diet, you might also have low blood sugar levels.
The key to preventing keto diet headaches is to keep your carb intake as low as possible, so make sure you are eating plenty of fat and protein to use as your primary energy source.
If you are looking for a quick fix to your keto headaches and are frustrated that you can’t seem to get rid of them, this might be the post for you.
If you know what the Keto diet is you can skip this section. But briefly the ketogenic diet (Keto for short) diet is a popular diet and lifestyle that replaces most of your carbs with fat which forces your body into using fats for fuel.
The average diet largely relies on glycogen and glucose that is provided by carbohydrates whereas the keto diet relies on ketone bodies, which is a type of fuel produced by the liver from fat stores, this fat burning process is what makes it so good as a weight-loss tool.
This sounds like an ideal way to lose weight, however it is not as simple as it sounds, for your liver and body to produce ketones a few criteria need to be met:
1) you need to severely restrict your carbohydrate intake, usually by as much as 90 or 95% which equates to between 20 and 50 grams of carbs per day; as a rough indicator a single slice of bread contains approximately 10 grams of carbs. Once you have restricted your carbs your body will start the process called ketosis, which is where your liver produces ketones from stored body fat.
2) ketosis usually takes a few days to start, though it can also take as little as a few hours and as much as ten days. So you need to be patient before any weight loss can start. Once your brain and body are used to using ketones for fuel it no longer matters much about reduced glucose levels, as long as your stay in ketosis. Your body has simple switched from glucose to ketones for fuel. This process is entirely natural and is how your body continues to survive during extreme situations like starvation.
3) protein also produces glucose, so as well as carbs you also need to restrict the amount of protein you eat. A good rule of thumb is that your daily diet should comprise about 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbs.
Now that you understand the basics of Keto and why it is associated with headaches, the next thing to do is learn how to get rid of them.
Fortunately most of the methods for getting rid of Keto headaches are simple, small adjustments.
There are five ways of curing Keto headaches.
Drinking plenty of water is one of the quickest ways to help reduce Keto headaches.
It is a fact that you need to drink lots of water when on Keto, certainly far more than before you started Keto.
Carbs help your kidneys retain water so removing carbs from your diets makes retaining water much harder. On this diet you need to drink about 16 cups (about 4.5 litres) of water per day to help reduce the risk of Keto headaches and to stay healthy.
This is especially important when you first start Keto as it is quite common to experience dehydration in the early stages so make sure that as well as cutting carbs that you add 'drink much more water than normal' to your Keto to-do-list.
You can also help yourself to stay hydrated by eating water-rich foods like cucumber, tomato, spinach.
Drinking more water will naturally make you urinate more. Urinating more will cause an electrolyte imbalance and lead you to lose more electrolytes. Your kidneys switch from retaining sodium/salt as part of a carb-rich diet to a diet that rapidly excretes sodium from your body. There are two important reasons for this:
Keto leads to less insulin in your blood, which is why it is so popular with people with type 2 diabetes. In addition, low insulin increases electrolyte loss through urine.
On a healthy low-carb diet it is difficult to naturally consume sufficient sodium, potassium, and magnesium which are needed for normal body function. Recommended daily intake of sodium is between 2.5 and 5 grams and between 3.5 and 4.7 grams of potassium per day. Magnesium is required in much smaller quantities, of between 400 and 600 milligrams. For Keto you should be targeting the upper ranges. Note this amount of daily sodium and potassium is required for as long as you are on the diet.
If you are a few days into Keto and you still have headaches, you are probably deficient in electrolytes. Deficiencies in sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium can all cause headaches and muscle cramps.
There are a number of ways that you can increase your level of electrolytes, the first is to consume more salt.
You could, for example, add sea salt to coconut water, though as coconut water contains sugar you should not drink this too often as you might exceed your carb limit for the day.
You can also drink bouillon or bone broth which will increase your sodium/salt levels.
It is crucial to get used to using your salt shaker a lot more when on Keto as drinking more water will flush out sodium at the same time.
Eating electrolyte-rich foods also helps, this include the keto-friendly spinach, kale, avocados, broccoli, beans, almonds, tomatoes, milk, buttermilk, yoghurt. See above for a table that contains a list of water-rich foods and their electrolyte composition.
Another way is to use a supplement containing exogenous ketones to help replenish your electrolytes,
I recommend you try Dr. Berg's Electrolyte Formula; this is a potassium-rich and 100% Keto-friendly formula that does not contain carbs or sugars, unlike most sports drinks which makes sports drinks unsuitable for Keto. As it is a powder that needs to be diluted into water, it solves two problems in one:
1) not only does it help balance electrolytes.
2) it also helps increase your water consumption.
Eating more fatty food might seem obvious as Keto is primarily based on eating more fatty foods. However, those new to Keto may notice it can be difficult to adjust their mindset to eating a diet that is high in fat. It is essential that Keto dieters must eat plenty of nutritious foods that are high fat to get the benefits of this specific type of diet.
Not having enough fat in your diet can also lead to headaches which is common when you are at or close to your maximum allowable carbs intake for the day. This is due to the fragile process of ketosis, when you first start out on Keto you might be finding your feet about what is your max level of carbs you can eat.
When not in ketosis your body starts to use glucose for fuel again. If you are still trying to reach ketosis at the same time you might be in the difficult position of not providing your brain with enough fuel from ketones/fats while also not providing enough fuel from glucose/carbs at the same time.
For instance, if you eat 50 grams of carbs, that might be too high to make ketones but too low to provide adequate glucose for the brain.
Healthy fats can be found in avocados, nuts, seeds, and high-quality oils and meats like steak, bacon, salmon and chicken; for a more comprehensive list read this article.
Eating fats can also help reduce sugar cravings during the transition from a carb-rich diet.
As Keto headaches are far more likely to occur in the initial stages of Keto, it makes sense to start your ketosis journey gradually as ketos can stress your body as your brain and body get used to the change. Failing to transition slowly from a carb-rich to a fat-rich diet is likely to increase keto headaches.
You might be tempted to eat all of your carb-rich foods that you have already bought right before starting Keto. This is a mistake as you will be going from one extreme to the other in a few days.
A slow and steady transition from glucose/carbs to ketones/fats is a far more sensible and successful way of changing your diet.
It might not be necessary for everyone to move to a fat-rich diet gradually but it is recommended.
It is recommended, especially if you are considering making keto a long-term lifestyle change, to ease yourself into the change with a more balanced diet that gradually excludes carbs rather than going cold turkey with an extremely low carbohydrate intake from day.
You might consider starting with a carb-free breakfast like scrambled eggs with sliced spinach and squeezed tomatoes made with lots of butter and olive oil, only without adding toast or a croissant.
Then for lunch and dinner have your normal meal using whole healthy foods.
Then on the next day try two carb-free meals and see how you feel. And then on the third day go carb-free for all three meals.
You could try including more protein in these transitionary meals and then slowly exclude more protein from your meals when you are ready to try for ketosis.
Exercise is an important feature of a healthy lifestyle and increasing metabolic flexibility: metabolic flexibility is how well your body adapts to switching from one fuel source (carbs) to another (fat).
Keto while being great for weight loss will not work miracles, you still need to exercise to lose weight. Eating fewer calories than you burn is just as important for Keto as it is for low-calorie diets.
Evidence shows that exercise is great for overall fitness, burning more body fat, and for generally increasing your sense of well-being. Exercise is also good for helping with Keto headaches by increasing how fast your body starts to use fat as its main source of fuel.
If high intensity interval training is an alien concept for you, you might want to start exercise on keto diet a little easier by starting with yoga, cycling, swimming, or walking; something that increases blood flow but that doesn't increase dehydration or fatigue.
You should wait until your body is used to the new fuel source before starting on a more intense exercise program like weightlifting.
Exercise can start light or moderate, that depends on how much exercise you are used to.
Here is a quick summary of some of the cures for keto headache mentioned above:
Stay hydrated. Not drinking enough water is one of the main reasons for headaches. Drink much more water to prevent water loss and dehydration. Aim to drink 16 cups (about 4.5 litres) of water per day.
Keep electrolytes balanced. Significantly increase salt consumption; a pinch of salt won't help with headaches. Eat water-rich and electrolyte-rich foods like tomatoes and spinach.
Drink electrolyte-enriched water. This is probably the best way of reducing Keto headaches. Use a Keto-friendly electrolyte formulas such as Dr. Berg's Electrolyte Formula.
Eat ample amounts of healthy fatty food. Fat is your new source of energy so to help mitigate headaches with Keto make sure you are eating a lot of fat.
Transition to ketosis gradually. Moving from carbs to fat is likely to be a big change for a lot of people. To increase your chance of successful weight loss with fewer side effects, ease yourself into the change gradually.
Exercise on Keto is important. Exercising is important for a healthier life, it is also important for preventing keto headaches by speeding up how quickly your body gets used to using ketones as fuel.
When you are asleep you will not be drinking water, therefore headaches might be more common in the mornings when you wake up.
You should ensure you have a glass of water close to hand when you wake up to quench your morning thirst.
A hearty breakfast that comprises some of the water-rich foods in the table above will also help.
In exceptionally rare cases headaches can last as long as 2 months, though 1 to 7 days is far more typical; if they last longer than two weeks, while other common keto flu symptoms have gone away, you should seek medical advice and consult your doctor to ensure you improve, though. It is very unlikely to be anything serious.
You might just need a small tweak to your diet or lifestyle, such as more sleep, less time in front of your computer, etc.
Other potential causes of headaches on Keto include:
using too many medications, particularly those that lead to dehydration.
medications that increase urination (diuretics) also increase the likelihood of Keto headaches.
At the start of the Keto diet the change of diet from carb-enriched to fat-enriched may cause headaches and concentration difficulties. However, these should be short-lived and are generally mild for most people. Indeed, people following the Keto diet long-term often report better clarity and focus.
Good news, if you experience migraines or other frequent bouts of headache it has been known for many years that Keto can help alleviate these.
Keto was first developed in 1921 to help epilepsy in children. Due to the erroneous belief that epilepsy was related to headaches there was initial research into how well Keto could help with headaches.
Since then Keto has been consistently shown to help with headaches, including migraine attacks. Therefore, if you have frequent migraines or other headaches you could try Keto to see if a change of diet can help you, source.
There are a couple of possible reasons for this:
Ketones are a cleaner source of fuel for your brain than carbohydrates.
Keto reduces brain inflammation and this has been linked with migraines.
Working out the ideal fat levels and not exceeding your limited daily intake of carbohydrates can be hard, this is why I recommend the Custom Keto Diet.
The Custom Keto Diet is an eight-week tailored meal plan created specifically for you by a panel of fitness trainers, chefs, and nutritional experts.
Even better is that the Custom Keto Diet takes into account your general health and what foods you like to eat so is tailored to your specific needs and preferences which is what helps to make it so effective.
To learn more you can read my comprehensive review of the Custom Keto Diet.
You can also subscribe to my YouTube channel, new videos are uploaded every Tuesday.
Keto headaches are a common side effect of starting the Keto diet and are primarily due to the restriction of carbs being a new part of your diet.
There is no cure for them, but you can treat and hopefully prevent the worst effects of keto headache pain by keeping yourself well hydrated and replenishing your electrolytes, both of which are easy to do.
The fear of having a Keto headache shouldn't put you off from starting Keto; it is a normal part of changing the fuel source your body uses and in most cases it is short-lived.
The long-term health benefits of Keto outweigh what is likely to be mild headache pain that most of us have for a short time experienced before anyway.