For most of her life, Tanya Kamka had weekly migraines.
The headache usually came on gradually and then worsened, causing excruciating pain and pressure behind her left eye that culminated in vomiting or a visit to the emergency room. The ordeal often left her feeling weak and exhausted for days.
“Whenever I had a migraine, I was wiped out for three or four days,” says Kamka, a 58-year-old postal worker who lives in North Carolina. “I missed a lot of work because of migraines.”
But a few years ago, Kamka and 181 other people who routinely suffer from migraines took part in a clinical trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health to test whether a special diet could relieve their common headaches. The diet assigned to Kamka emphasized foods high in omega-3 fatty acids found in some fish, while restricting foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids, such as many vegetable oils.
The new study provides evidence that eating right could provide relief for some people who suffer from frequent migraines
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both considered to be essential fatty acids – essential for health, and since our bodies cannot produce them ourselves, they must be ingested through food. Historically, humans consumed roughly equivalent amounts of both fatty acids.
But the The typical American diet today tends to contain a much larger proportion of omega-6 fatty acids. Some health authorities see this as a good thing: Vegetable oils and other rich sources of omega-6 fat have been found in many studies to be beneficial to cardiovascular health.
However, others argue that this could be problematic because of omega-6 fats proven to promote pain and inflammation, while omega-3 fats tend to have the opposite effect in studies and help reduce pain and inflammation.
The authors of the new study wanted to know: Could a diet that increases omega-3 fats while lowering omega-6 fats make life easier for people with frequent migraine headaches?
For Kamka, the benefits of changing her diet were striking: after a few months of increasing her fish consumption and avoiding many common vegetable oils, she found that her headaches were all but gone. Other people on the new diet also reported fewer headaches. Although the trial ended after 16 weeks, Kamka has stuck with it ever since. Gone are the days when she ate foods like fried chicken, french fries, and potato chips that were cooked in vegetable oils that were high in omega-6 fatty acids. She now eats foods like cod, tuna, sardines, spinach salad, hummus, and avocados, and cooks with olive oil instead of corn, soy, and canola oils.
“I haven’t had a migraine, not even a slight one, in over two years,” she says. “It was just amazing for me to go from one to none a week.”
The two groups that increased their fish intake had higher amounts of compounds known as oxylipins, which are involved in pain relief. Photo: Margeaux Walter / The New York Times
Migraines are one of the most common causes of chronic pain. affects approximately 12% of all Americans, most of them women. For many people, the condition can be debilitating, causing severe pain, nausea, and other symptoms, and greatly increasing the chances of developing depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that Migraine attacks can affect productivity in the workplacewhich causes people to lose about four working days on average each year.
However, the new study provides evidence that proper diet can provide relief and help reduce the number and severity of headaches for some people who suffer from frequent migraine attacks. Similar studies are ongoing to assess whether dietary changes could help relieve other types of painful chronic ailments, such as lower back pain.
Dr. Christopher E. Ramsden, lead author of the study, says the results suggest that diet changes could be a useful addition to existing treatments for chronic pain. “Many people with chronic pain continue to suffer despite taking medication,” said Dr. Ramsden, a clinical researcher in the National Institute on Aging Intramural Research Program. “I think this could be incorporated into other treatments to improve their quality of life and relieve their pain.”
For the new process, published in the BMJ in JulyParticipants were randomly divided into three groups and observed for 16 weeks. One group, including Kamka, followed a diet high in omega-3s and relatively low in omega-6s: they ate many foods like wild salmon, albacore tuna, and trout while trying the rich sources to minimize omega fatty acids. 6 fats like corn, soybean and rapeseed oil. To facilitate adherence to the diet, all subjects were given meals, snacks, and recipes prepared by a nutritionist throughout the study.
People struggling with migraine headaches are often motivated to follow restrictive diets in order to find relief from their condition
Vegetable oils high in omega-6 are found in abundance in the American diet. They are often used in cooking and can be found in many packaged foods and restaurant dishes. To see if reducing these fats might have an impact on migraine headaches, the researchers had a second group of people add more fish and other rich sources of omega-3s to their diets without consuming omega-6s to reduce. A third group of people, who served as a control group, consumed typical amounts of both types of fats.
At the start of the study, the participants experienced an average of 16 “headache days” per month. But after 16 weeks, the group that had increased their fish consumption and avoided vegetable oils had an average of four fewer “headache days” per month than the control group and a 30 to 40 percent reduction in “headaches”. Hours “daily.
The group that increased their omega-3 intake without reducing their omega-6 intake also benefited, although they saw a smaller improvement of two fewer days each month with no headaches. Both groups reported shorter and less severe headaches than those in the control group. They also used less pain relievers like acetaminophen.
The researchers also found differences in key blood biomarkers. The two groups that increased their fish intake had higher amounts of compounds known as oxylipins, which are involved in pain relief. They were particularly high in 17-HDHA, an oxylipin that other studies have shown it to relieve pain in people with arthritis.
Dr. Rebecca Burch, a neurologist who was not involved in the new study, says the results were startling. She wrote an editorial in the BMJ, pointing out that recently approved migraine drugs have shown in studies to cause two to 2½ days fewer “headache days” per month than placebo, which is less than the four-day reduction that comes with which is causing high levels of omega fatty acids. 3, low omega-6 diet.
“Four days a month really surpass everything that we have seen so far in terms of pharmacological prevention,” says Dr. Burch, a specialist in headache medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Burch said that people struggling with migraine headaches are often motivated to follow restrictive diets in an attempt to find relief for their condition. But until now there hasn’t been much evidence that any particular diet works
For people who want to try the diet for themselves, the researchers said the easiest way to increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake is to add more oily fish like sardines, anchovies, mackerel, salmon, albacore tuna, and trout meal. Some of the best and cheapest options are canned and bagged fish. For vegetarians, ground flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts are good vegetable sources of omega-3 fats.
Another important part of the diet is avoiding fried, processed, and fast foods, which are typically made with oils that are low in omega-3s and high in omega-6s. Beth MacIntosh, a co-author of the new study, said that extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia oil, coconut oil, and butter all tend to have low amounts of omega-6 fats.
You can use these oils to prepare meals or make your own snacks like popcorn, hummus, and granola. The researchers also encouraged study participants to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
“Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in omega-6s – and they’re just plain healthy,” said MacIntosh, clinical nutrition manager for the Research Center for Metabolic Nutrition at UNC Health in Chapel Hill.