Modifying the consumption of certain fatty acids can reduce the severity of the headache

PICTURE: Daisy Zamora, PhD view More

Photo credit: UNC School of Medicine

CHAPEL HILL, NC – Migraines are one of the biggest causes of disability worldwide. Existing treatments are often insufficient to provide complete relief to patients. A new study published in the BMJ shows that patients can use an additional option to experience fewer migraines and headaches – a change in diet.

“Our ancestors ate very different amounts and types of fats compared to our modern diet,” said co-lead author Daisy Zamora, PhD, assistant professor in the UNC’s Department of Psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine. “Polyunsaturated fatty acids, which our bodies don’t make themselves, have increased significantly in our diets due to the addition of oils like corn, soybeans, and cottonseed to many processed foods like chips, crackers, and cereal.”

The polyunsaturated fatty acid classes examined in this study are omega-6 (n-6) and omega-3 (n-3). Both have important functions in our body, but must be in balance, as n-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation and some derivatives of n-6 are pain-inducing. However, because of the amount of processed foods consumed today, most people in the United States eat significantly more n-6 and less n-3 fatty acids.

To see if the amount of these fatty acids in a person’s diet could affect headache pain, 182 patients currently diagnosed with migraines and seeking treatment for them were enrolled in this randomized, controlled trial led by Doug Mann , MD, Professor of Neurology and Internal Medicine, accepted medicine at the UNC School of Medicine. In addition to their current treatments, patients followed one of three diets for 16 weeks: a control diet that maintained the average amount of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids consumed by a person in the United States; that maintain the n-3 and n-6 ​​fatty acids; and a diet that increases n-3 and decreases n-6 fatty acids. Participants received 2/3 of their daily food requirements and were also given an electronic diary that recorded how many hours a day they had a headache.

“Participants seemed highly motivated to follow these diets because of the pain they experienced,” said Beth MacIntosh, MPH, RD, Clinical Nutrition Manager, UNC Metabolic and Nutrition Research Core.

“The results are pretty promising,” said Zamora. “Patients on either diet had less pain than controls. Those on diets high in n-3 and low in n-6 saw the greatest improvement.”

Participants reported fewer days per month with headaches, and some were able to reduce the amount of medication they needed for their pain. However, the participants did not report any change in quality of life.

“I think this change in diet could have an impact,” said Zamora. “The effect we have seen in reducing headaches is similar to what we see with some drugs. The caveat is that although participants reported fewer headaches, some people did not change their perception of the effects of headaches on them. ”

“This study specifically tested n-3 fatty acids from fish and not from dietary supplements,” said co-author of the study, Keturah Faurot, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and deputy director of the integrative medicine program. “Our results do not apply to the use of dietary supplements.”

Zamora says the biochemical hypothesis of how certain fatty acids affect pain applies to a wide variety of chronic pain. She and her colleagues are currently working on a new study to test diet changes for other pain syndromes.


This study is the result of a large collaboration between 24 interdisciplinary researchers. First co-authors are Zamora and Christopher Ramsden, MD, a researcher at the National Institute on Aging and a former UNC clinical fellow. 16 of the co-authors are affiliated with the University of North Carolina.

This project was funded in part by a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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