I actually went on a ketogenic diet last year to see if it would help my migraines. I have a history of chronic migraines which would usually last 3 days, sometimes longer. Triptans help a lot but I don’t like having to take them. I stayed in ketosis for about 8 months and experienced a significant reduction in migraines, from feeling some type of headache (mild o r severe) almost everyday to 1 or 2x per month while in ketosis. Although I’m very healthy otherwise, I do think my migraines may have something to do with blood sugar fluctuations (despite previously eating a whole foods diet and no refined carbs), and keto totally stabilized this. I eventually came off of Keto because I’m not really a meat lover. When I came off, but remained low carb, my migraines stayed under control for the most part. When I increase carbs, they do return.
Around this time, Bernarr Macfadden, an American exponent of physical culture, popularised the use of fasting to restore health. His disciple, the osteopathic physician Dr. Hugh William Conklin of Battle Creek, Michigan, began to treat his epilepsy patients by recommending fasting. Conklin conjectured that epileptic seizures were caused when a toxin, secreted from the Peyer's patches in the intestines, was discharged into the bloodstream. He recommended a fast lasting 18 to 25 days to allow this toxin to dissipate. Conklin probably treated hundreds of epilepsy patients with his "water diet" and boasted of a 90% cure rate in children, falling to 50% in adults. Later analysis of Conklin's case records showed 20% of his patients achieved freedom from seizures and 50% had some improvement.
The popular low-carb diets (such as Atkins or Paleo) modify a true keto diet. But they come with the same risks if you overdo it on fats and proteins and lay off the carbs. So why do people follow the diets? "They're everywhere, and people hear anecdotally that they work," McManus says. Theories about short-term low-carb diet success include lower appetite because fat burns slower than carbs. "But again, we don't know about the long term," she says. "And eating a restrictive diet, no matter what the plan, is difficult to sustain. Once you resume a normal diet, the weight will likely return."
Even when exercising at a submaximal level (for example, biking at a moderate speed), heart rate and adrenaline levels rise more when people are eating a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet vs. a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. This results in those on the high fat diet perceiving that they are working harder to achieve the same pace as the high-carbers, and they have much more difficulty speeding up their pace in sprints or climbs.
In Asia, the normal diet includes rice and noodles as the main energy source, making their elimination difficult. Therefore, the MCT-oil form of the diet, which allows more carbohydrate, has proved useful. In India, religious beliefs commonly affect the diet: some patients are vegetarians, will not eat root vegetables or avoid beef. The Indian ketogenic diet is started without a fast due to cultural opposition towards fasting in children. The low-fat, high-carbohydrate nature of the normal Indian and Asian diet means that their ketogenic diets typically have a lower ketogenic ratio (1:1) than in America and Europe. However, they appear to be just as effective.
When you’re eating the foods that get you there (more on that in a minute), your body can enter a state of ketosis in one to three days, she adds. During the diet, the majority of calories you consume come from fat, with a little protein and very little carbohydrates. Ketosis also happens if you eat a very low-calorie diet — think doctor-supervised, only when medically recommended diets of 600 to 800 total calories.
Children who discontinue the diet after achieving seizure freedom have about a 20% risk of seizures returning. The length of time until recurrence is highly variable, but averages two years. This risk of recurrence compares with 10% for resective surgery (where part of the brain is removed) and 30–50% for anticonvulsant therapy. Of those who have a recurrence, just over half can regain freedom from seizures either with anticonvulsants or by returning to the ketogenic diet. Recurrence is more likely if, despite seizure freedom, an electroencephalogram shows epileptiform spikes, which indicate epileptic activity in the brain but are below the level that will cause a seizure. Recurrence is also likely if an MRI scan shows focal abnormalities (for example, as in children with tuberous sclerosis). Such children may remain on the diet longer than average, and children with tuberous sclerosis who achieve seizure freedom could remain on the ketogenic diet indefinitely.
One of the most-cited worries about the keto diet is the long-term impact it may have on heart health—especially because people with diabetes are at greater risk for heart disease. In the small Diabetic Medicine study that found people with type 1 improved their A1Cs on a keto diet, participants had higher triglycerides and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. This raises concerns about the diet’s longer-term heart health implications, as do the results of research published last year in The Lancet. That study followed more than 15,000 adults for 25 years and found that people who consumed less than 40 percent of their calories from carbohydrates were significantly more likely to die from heart disease than those whose diets contained 50 to 55 percent of calories from carbs—especially if the foods that replaced those carbs were rich in animal fats and proteins.
This may require a lifestyle change for many families, so we advise families who are interested in the diet to learn more by reading some of our excellent printed resources and to talk to each person who regularly cares for the child to make sure there is agreement to try the diet. We usually encourage an appointment with one of our epileptologists to confirm that the diet is right for your child, and then an appointment with our ketogenic diet team to go over more of the details.
The ketogenic diet reduces seizure frequency by more than 50% in half of the patients who try it and by more than 90% in a third of patients. Three-quarters of children who respond do so within two weeks, though experts recommend a trial of at least three months before assuming it has been ineffective. Children with refractory epilepsy are more likely to benefit from the ketogenic diet than from trying another anticonvulsant drug. Some evidence indicates that adolescents and adults may also benefit from the diet.
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