Food can trigger migraines, but certain dietary changes can reduce the frequency and severity of headaches in migraineurs, a new study found.
People who ate a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but above all reduced their intake of omega-6 fatty acids, reported shorter and less severe headaches compared to those who ate a typical American diet. The cuts were big and “robust,” researchers reported this month in the BMJ.
The results offer hope to the 1 billion people around the world – including 12% of Americans – who have migraines and are looking for diet options that could provide relief, experts said.
“The reduction in headache days per month was impressive. It was similar to some of the drugs used to prevent migraines, and that’s very exciting, “said Daisy Zamora, co-author of the study, researcher at the National Institute on Aging and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine, TODAY.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are healthy fats that humans must ingest through food. But they’re out of whack in the average US diet.
Americans now eat at least twice the amount of omega-6 fatty acids our ancestors ate, Zamora said. Linoleic acid – the predominant omega-6 in the Western diet – is found in vegetable oils, including corn, safflower, and soybean oils, so it’s abundant in pastries, crackers, snacks, and other processed foods.
The molecules that are made when the body digests omega-6 fats are associated with pain processes and have been known to cause pain, Zamora noted.
Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, have anti-inflammatory properties. The best sources are cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines. Vegetable sources include walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds.
For the study, the researchers enrolled 182 people who suffered from migraines five to 20 days a month. Two thirds of the participants met the criteria for chronic migraine.
They were then randomly assigned to one of three diets for 16 weeks:
High omega-3 diet: This plan included lots of oily fish – salmon and tuna every day – and increased your intake of certain omega-3 fats (known as EPA and DHA) to 1.5 grams per day. According to the National Institutes of Health, the average American eats a fraction of that amount.
Diets high in omega-3 and low in omega-6: It was similar to the first plan, but this diet also reduced omega-6 intake to less than a quarter of the typical US diet. People in this group cooked with macadamia nut oil, olive oil, coconut oil or butter instead of the typical vegetable oils and ate low-linoleic snacks.
Average US diet: This was the control meal. It contained the typical amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids eaten by Americans.
Each participant kept a diary to monitor their migraines and to record the frequency and intensity of their headaches and how it affected their lives.
At the start of the study, participants had an average of about 16 headache days per month and nearly five and a half headache hours per day, even though they were each taking multiple medications for the pain.
After four months of eating, the high omega-3 and low omega-6 diets resulted in a reduction in total headache hours per day, severe headache per day, and total headache days per month compared to the control group, the NIH said.
Merely increasing omega-3 fats without reducing omega-6 fatty acids also showed benefits, but not as much as these two changes.
In a leading article accompanying the study with the subtitle “Finally, there is reason to be optimistic among those looking for a nutritional option,” said Dr. Rebecca Burch, a headache medicine specialist and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, said the results were “remarkable.” . “
“These results support the recommendation of a high omega-3 diet for patients in clinical practice,” wrote Burch.
“(They) bring us one step closer to a goal long ago headache sufferers and those who care for them have come one step closer: a migraine diet backed by solid clinical trial results.”
What you should be aware of:
This study says nothing about the benefits of diet supplements, Zamora said. People prefer to increase their omega-3 intake through food rather than taking a pill, she added.
The diet was tested as a supplement to medication, not a substitute for it. Migraineurs should ask their doctor if they should add it to the treatment they are already receiving.
The diet, which has a lot of fish on the menu every day, is “doable” but may be difficult for some people to follow, said Zamora: “It takes a motivated person to be able to do it with confidence.” For future studies Finding out how difficult it is for patients to maintain a high omega-3 diet at home will be crucial, Burch wrote.
Although they had fewer, shorter, and less severe headaches, the participants did not feel that the changes significantly improved their quality of life. That’s consistent with the reality of migraines and how debilitating they are, noted Zamora.
“If a person has 16 (headache) days a month and can cut that down to 12 days, that’s a huge reduction – four extra days painless,” she said.
“But if you ask her at the end of the month, ‘Does your pain have a big impact on your life?’ The answer is still yes because 12 days a month is still a big impact. “