Keeping track of all the strict rules on the keto diet can make your head spin—so it’s no wonder headaches are one of the side effects of the uber-trendy diet. All kidding aside, keto headaches *are* actually A Thing that many keto dieters deal with when they start the diet.
Keto headaches, which are one of the totally miserable symptoms lumped into the “keto flu” category, often appear at the beginning of a ketogenic diet overhaul. The severity and duration of the symptoms vary from person to person, just like the real flu. Some people only have mild symptoms while others feel completely knocked out, with icky body and energy symptoms lasting hours or up to weeks.
The good news is the headaches are generally a short-term effect that only happen as your body adjusts to the low-carb, high-fat eating plan and switches into fat-burning mode. Nutritionists also have many tips for how keto dieters can prevent and treat keto headaches, so they don’t throw off your whole day or lead you to ditch the eating plan altogether. Here’s everything you need to know to nix the discomfort.
What causes headaches on keto?
When you start the keto diet and dramatically drop your carb consumption (to somewhere around 20 to 50 grams per day), your body transitions into a process called ketosis within two to seven days. That means the body starts making ketones and burning fat for energy to make up for the lack of carbs coming in. You also go through carb withdrawal (yes, that’s a thing), which brings on symptoms like keto headaches.
The keto headaches occur during the transition into ketosis. “Headaches may occur as a result of consuming fewer carbohydrates, especially sugar,” says Valerie Agyeman, RD, women’s health dietitian and founder of Flourish Heights. “When you start the diet, your body begins relying on ketones instead of glucose, which can cause your blood sugar levels to drop. In turn, this may lead to low blood sugar.” This transition into ketosis may stress out your brain, which could result in a brain fog as well as headaches, she adds.
That’s not all: Agyeman says these factors also increase your risk of keto headaches:
- Overuse of medications, diuretics, and other drugs that promote dehydration
- Poor sleep
- Skipping meals
How long do keto headaches typically last?
Keto headaches, like other keto flu symptoms, are very personal. “It varies for everyone, but most people get headaches in the beginning phase of following this restrictive diet and might improve as you remain hydrated and eat plenty of nutritious foods,” says Agyeman. The pain can pop up anytime of day, too.
“Much like any diet plan, there’s a right way to do it healthfully,” says Keri Glassman, RD, nutritionist at Nutritious Life. “If you go right to eating packaged foods because they’re labeled ‘keto’ and loading up on only hard-to-digest foods, your body will have a harder time thriving on this diet and can result in more headaches, brain fog, aches, and pains.”
How can you treat and prevent headaches on keto?
You’re not totally powerless against keto headaches. Nutritionists say there are many ways you can get ahead of them and stay on track with your keto diet.
Keep in mind, the keto diet may not be to blame for your headaches. As Agyeman warns, “If you continue to experience headaches constantly on the keto diet, consult a health professional to ensure that an underlying medical condition isn’t to blame.” And if keto just isn’t for you, that’s okay too. Nutrition is super personal—and you can work with a health pro to find the best eating plan for you.
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