July 13, 2021
Foods can trigger migraines, but certain dietary changes can reduce the frequency and severity of these debilitating headaches, a new study has found.
In fact, the Today show reports, people who ate a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids—specially while also reducing their intake of omega-6 fats—say they have suffered from shorter and less severe headaches, compared with those who ate a typical American diet. The reductions in pain and frequency were large and “robust,” researchers reported this month in The BMJ, a weekly peer-reviewed medical trade journal, published by the trade union the British Medical Association (BMA).
The findings offer hope for the 1 billion people worldwide—including 12% of Americans —who suffer from migraines.
“The reduction in headache days per month that we saw was impressive. It was similar to what we see with some medications that are being used as migraine preventatives and that’s very exciting,” Daisy Zamora, study co-author, researcher at National Institute on Aging and assistant psychiatry professor at the UNC School of Medicine, told Today.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are types of healthy fat humans must get from food. But they are eaten in a way that is out of balance with the rest of the average U.S. diet.
Americans now eat at least twice the amount of omega-6s that 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 made when the body digests omega-6 fats are linked to pain processes and are known to trigger pain, Zamora noted.
Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, have anti-inflammatory properties. The best sources include cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines. Plant-based sources include walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds.
For the study, researchers enrolled 182 people who suffered from migraines five to 20 days per month. Two-thirds of the participants met the criteria of having chronic migraines.
They were then randomly assigned to follow one of three diets for 16 weeks:
- High omega-3 diet: This plan included lots of fatty fish — salmon and tuna every day — raising the intake of certain omega-3 fats (known as EPA and DHA) to 1.5 grams a day. The average American eats a fraction of that amount,according to the National Institutes of Health.
- High omega-3 + low omega-6 diet: This plan was similar to the first plan, but this diet also concurrently reduced omega-6 intake to below 25% of that on the typical U.S. diet. People in this group cooked with macadamia nut oil, olive oil, coconut oil, or butter instead of the typical vegetable oils and ate snacks low in linoleic acid.
- Average U.S. diet: This was the control eating regimen. It contained the typical levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids eaten by the majority of Americans.
Each participant kept a diary to monitor their migraines, as well as to record the frequency and intensity of their headaches and how they impacted their life.
At the start of the study, participants averaged about 16 headache days per month and almost five-and-a-half headache hours per day, despite each taking several medications to combat the pain.
After four months of the eating regimens, the high omega-3 + low omega-6 diet produced between 30% and 40% reductions in total headache hours per day, severe headache hours per day and overall headache days per month compared to the control group, the NIH said.
Just boosting omega-3 fats without reducing omega-6s also showed benefits, but not as strong as making both those changes.
In an accompanying editorial to the study, sub-titled “At last, grounds for optimism among those seeking a dietary option,” Dr. Rebecca Burch, a headache medicine specialist and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, called the findings “remarkable.”
“These results support recommending a high omega-3 diet to patients in clinical practice,” Burch wrote.
“(They) take us one step closer to a goal long sought by headache patients and those who care for them: a migraine diet backed up by robust clinical trial results.”
Research contact: @TODAYshow