Anyone who suffers from chronic pain knows that medication alone doesn’t always eliminate the deep discomfort that comes along with your condition. Because of this, patients, doctors, and researchers suggest lifestyle changes to augment treatment options like painkillers. The ketogenic diet, which focuses on a high-fat diet and low carb intake, is a popular choice for those looking to shed weight, but it has also shown health benefits for those dealing with epileptic seizures and pain. Additionally, it has anti-inflammatory benefits. In this article, we’ll dissect the keto diet for chronic pain and examine its efficacy.
What is the Ketogenic Diet?
The keto diet consists mainly of foods that are high in fats, unlike the normal carbohydrate diet of an American.
Here’s how it works:
Most cells in the body get their energy from glucose (sugar), which is supplied mostly by carbs. By switching to a diet that nearly eliminates those carbs, the body is forced to find an alternative energy source. This leads to a process known as ketosis.
In ketosis, the body will start to burn fat, turning it into ketone bodies, which will be used as an energy source until you start eating carbs again.
According to a Harvard Health blog, it takes approximately two to four days of eating fewer than 20 to 50 grams of carbs per day for the body to enter ketosis. However, one of the major problems of this diet lies in its strict nature. It eliminates many foods that are staples in most people’s diets.
What to Eat in the Keto Diet for Chronic Pain
Switching over to a keto diet is going to make your shopping cart at the grocery store look quite a bit different. At first, it might even seem contrary to everything you have been taught about eating right.
Here are the things you need to use in your cooking:
- Red meat, pork, chicken
- Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, shellfish
- Avocados, green vegetables, tomatoes, onions
- Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and chard
- Coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil
- Berries of all kinds
These foods have few, if any, carbohydrates, and are packed with healthy fats. You may find it difficult at first, so long-term meal planning is going to be your best friend.
This does not mean you have to give up eating out at your favorite restaurant, though. You can always find a dish that is a high protein main course and substitute that side of fries for more green vegetables or the like.
Your goal here is to eat 70% fats, 25% protein and 5% carbs.
What Not to Eat
Here is where it gets a little more difficult. You won’t be eating any sugar, and the number of carbs you’re allowed is extremely limited. Stay away from:
- Fruit (except berries)
- Pasta, rice, cereal
- Root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc…)
- Beans and other legumes
- Processed foods
How Keto Could Help Treat Pain
The ketogenic diet has long been used as a treatment for epileptic seizures, especially in children, but there is growing research pointing to its effectiveness as a treatment for chronic pain conditions.
The first way it can make an impact is simple. Adhering to a keto diet improves your chances of weight loss. When you are carrying less weight, there is less stress on your joints.
Going beyond the initial effects of weight loss gets a little more complicated. Several studies done with mice show how the ketones your body burns for energy can actually inhibit neuron excitability, one reason for enhanced pain transmission. That, combined with the added benefit of certain ketone bodies hindering pain pathways, helps alleviate discomfort.
That ketone body, called beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), actually blocks an immune system receptor linked to inflammation. When you eat foods that cause an excess of inflammation (which creates a higher glucose level), it leads to chronic inflammation. Cutting out that buildup of glucose by switching to a ketogenic diet can reduce inflammation and eliminate your pain naturally.
Study authors conclude that keto is a very promising alternative, natural treatment for chronic pain, but there is still a lot of research to be done. In addition, there is anecdotal evidence that backs up the use of the keto diet for chronic pain.
Keto’s Side Effects
However, the keto diet can also come with some downsides. The first of which is the keto flu.
Your body’s sudden change from burning glucose to fat can cause symptoms like headaches, nausea, vomiting, loss of energy and irritability. This usually lasts for a few days to a week, so you may want to try a regular low carb diet before switching fully to keto.
The diet can also lead to a large increase in urination. Urination is your body’s way of removing ketones, and too much can lead to dehydration and a loss of electrolytes. If not addressed, this can lead to things like kidney stones, kidney injury or cardiac arrhythmia.
One final risk is the nutritional limitations of the diet itself. It does not allow most fruits, vegetables, and grains. By not eating those things, you’re missing out on fiber and many vitamins and minerals the body needs to stay healthy. This may lead to you taking supplements as part of your daily routine.
Making the Switch
While evidence to support a recommendation of the keto diet for chronic pain still requires significant research, current studies show it’s effective for a range of conditions.
Review the pros and cons of the diet outlined above and take into account the side effects to help decide if it’s something that might work for you. Before finalizing this decision, it’s important to discuss it with your health care team to make sure there are no other risk factors for your individual situation.
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