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Keto Headache: 4 Causes and 4 Cures

By Fitoru | 19 July 2019
lady suffering from a keto headache

The keto headache, along with other symptoms of “keto flu,” is a common unpleasant side effect of starting a ketogenic diet. Luckily, it’s a temporary nuisance that clears up as soon as you transition to a state of ketosis. Still, you may be wondering what causes the keto headache and how to get rid of it fast. We don’t blame you! So, we have the answers here.

The Keto Diet Explained

The keto or ketogenic diet is a high-fat, moderate-protein, low-carb diet designed to teach your body to burn fat for its fuel source instead of sugar. Sugar produces the quick fix that is glucose, while fat produces ketone bodies for energy (hence the name ketogenic). 

Once this change-over is complete, you get to experience fast yet safe body-weight loss. As an added bonus, the keto diet can help optimize your blood sugar levels and insulin levels by reducing your carb intake and the blood sugar spikes that come along with it. Sounds amazing, but what’s the drawback? 

Well, a whole new diet might feel pretty strict at first, and there could be some backsliding involved, especially when it comes to restricting the carbs that you’re used to. Those backslides, though understandable and quite common, can delay ketosis and lengthen flu-like symptoms, which include fatigue, lack of appetite, keto breath, and keto headache. 

What Causes Keto Headache?

Uncomfortable symptoms such as keto headaches can plague you for up to a week and may cause you to quit your keto diet just when you’re on the cusp of achieving ketosis. If you’re experiencing keto flu symptoms, in one sense you’re on the right path: your diet is working! Much like having sore muscles after a rigorous workout, the principle at play here is “no pain, no gain.” Still, you’re not likely to be happy about a persistent headache, so where does it come from?

Keto headache: causes and cures.

1. Blood Sugar Drops and Dehydration

Sometimes just changing the part in your hair can cause a headache, that is how sensitive we humans are to change and how solidly we get set in our ways. If you suddenly transition your entire diet from high carb to low carb, there will be some consequences, and not all of them good.

First your blood glucose levels drop, and if they drop below 70 mg/dL you’re in hypoglycemia territory. Hypoglycemia brings symptoms like brain fog, shakiness, and headaches, all side effects commonly associated with keto flu.

Dehydration is another side effect of starting a keto diet. With less glycogen (sugar) and less insulin, both of which help to retain enough water in your body, you may become dehydrated, another cause of headaches and more.

When the body is put through large changes such as the keto diet, it produces more cortisol and adrenaline, stress hormones intended to respond to whatever is causing such a drastic change. This state of stress will pass, but naturally you want to get through it as quickly as possible and get back to feeling fit and healthy.

2. Sugar and Carb Withdrawal

Sugar, including the sugar from carbs, can activate the same reward pathways in your brain as street drugs like cocaine. It sounds extreme, but any substance that releases dopamine in our brains has the potential to become addictive, and a sugar addiction is as real as any other. 

There are tips for beating sugar detox symptoms, including keto-friendly replacement treats to tide you over until your body adapts. When you quit eating up to 95% of the carb-rich foods your body is used to, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms like irritability, sugar cravings, and headaches too. It’s another factor contributing to the headache problem.

3. Sodium Deficiency

Sodium or salt deficiency (hyponatremia) is a form of electrolyte imbalance. Your electrolytes are the chemicals that transmit electrical signals between your cells, and you don’t want them to be dysfunctional. Your electrolytes and sodium levels also dictate your body’s fluid balance, and without them in order you may experience the dehydration previously mentioned. 

Each of these aspects surrounding sodium can cause headaches, but luckily you can safely add salt back into your body. Many keto recipes call for Himalayan Pink Salt to help keep your electrolytes and fluid levels in balance. Read on to find out more keto headache solutions.

4. Caffeine Withdrawal

Starting keto can easily involve quitting your usual caffeine delivery liquid, like sugary sodas, energy drinks, or sweetened coffee. If you cut caffeine to cut the sugar along with it, now you’re quitting two drugs at once, a double-whammy. Caffeine withdrawal also causes headaches, but you don’t have to say goodbye to caffeine if you don’t want to.

Coffee is actually good for you in moderate doses, and caffeine too. A cup of java is often recommended by doctors to encourage bowel movements, and caffeine is scientifically linked to successful weight loss and maintenance. The trick is not to add sugar to black coffee—try using cinnamon to help cut down on bitterness, and consider adding MCT or coconut oil to make keto coffee. These additions help generate ketones that can improve your energy levels and accelerate your transition to ketosis.

Caffeine helps increase blood flow to your brain, and withdrawal from caffeine can cause those blood vessels to restrict, resulting in headaches and even extreme migraines. Consider adding caffeine back into your routine either temporarily or indefinitely. 

What Cures Keto Headache?

While keto headaches are a temporary inconvenience, they can interrupt your life for up to a week, which may well cause you to be snippy with loved ones, unproductive at work, and even dangerously distracted on the road. These are some quick cures that allow you to maintain ketosis and relieve keto headache.

  1. Drink a glass of salt water. While drinking copious amounts of salt water is detrimental, if you are low on salt, a warm glass of water with just half a teaspoon of salt can help you get back to normal, and may help relieve your headache. Some people will utilize a salt water flush to cleanse their digestive system, while others gargle with warm salt water to help relieve a sore throat. When used minimally and medicinally, salt is good for you.
  2. Replenish your electrolytes. Don’t stop at salt—along with making sure you’re drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration, try to up your intake of other essential electrolytes, including potassium (salmon, broccoli, avocado), calcium (dairy products), and magnesium (nuts, seeds, and fibrous vegetables). 
  3. Take exogenous ketones. Endogenous ketones are the ones your body derives in-house from burning fatty foods and fat stores, but exogenous ketones are ones you can ingest as your glycogen stores from sugar run out. This helps alleviate all aspects of keto flu and transitions your body quicker. Try MCT oil products and BHB supplements to reach ketosis more comfortably.
  4. Eat more fats. Half the battle of reaching ketosis is low carbohydrates, but the other half is high fat intake. After a lifetime of hearing fat is bad for you it may be hard to base every meal around high-fat foods like butter, olive oil, avocados, fish, and fatty meats like bacon. Nevertheless, up those fatty foods and feel better!

Don’t Despair, You’re Almost There

If you’re experiencing keto flu symptoms like keto headache, it’s because you’re actively transitioning into a state of ketosis. Many beginners might get discouraged at this stage and wonder how long their discomfort will last before they reap the benefits, but rest assured that as long as you stick with your diet (and don’t keep falling in and out of ketosis), keto flu issues typically last no longer than the first week. Try our suggestions to alleviate keto headache, fatigue, and brain fog, and don’t quit, because you’re just about to reach the finish line!

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