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A new study investigates the links between diet and migraine. LauriPatterson/Getty Images
  • Migraine and other headache disorders are one of the primary causes of disability worldwide.
  • Researchers suspect that diet can play a role in reducing or increasing migraine headaches.
  • In a recent study, diets higher in fish fats and lower in vegetable oils reduced migraine frequency and severity.

In a new study, researchers have found that diets higher in fish fats and lower in vegetable oils may reduce the frequency and severity of migraine.

The research, which appears in the BMJ, suggests that diet may be an effective companion therapy for migraine.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) describes a migraine headache as intense pain in a person’s head. However, they note that migraine can also cause nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to sound and light.

Around 10% of people worldwide experience migraine, and three times more females experience them than males. Many different factors can trigger migraine, but while scientists are still unsure of the precise biological mechanisms that drive the associations, they believe there is a genetic cause.

There is currently no cure for migraine. However, doctors can prescribe drug treatments to prevent it from developing or to lessen the symptoms.

Drugs are available to treat the effects of migraine, and people can use over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics to manage the pain.

Sometimes, doctors will offer advice about making behavioral changes to avoid migraine. These may include identifying migraine triggers and using stress-management techniques.

However, according to Dr. Christopher Ramsden, lead author of the present study and Clinical Investigator in the Intramural Program of the National Institutes of Health, Baltimore, MD, and his co-authors, “although treatment options for migraine have improved in the last decade, many patients continue to experience substantial pain and disability despite taking multiple drugs.”

Consequently, researchers are keen to develop further treatments for migraine.

Researchers have shown that diet can play a role in the development and severity of migraine symptoms.

They have focused on fatty acids, specifically n-3 fatty acids, typically found in fish oils, and n-6 fatty acids, typically found in vegetable oils. These fatty acids play an important role in tissues with links to migraines.

The researchers of the present study highlight that substances derived from n-3 fatty acids have links to pain reduction. Conversely, substances derived from n-6 fatty acids have links to pain promotion.

Consequently, the researchers hypothesized that increasing n-3 fatty acids in a person’s diet might reduce the severity and intensity of migraine headaches — particularly if they reduce the intake of n-6 fatty acids at the same time.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers conducted a study involving 182 adults who frequently experienced migraine. They recruited the participants between July 2014 and May 2018.

At the beginning of the study, the participants experienced an average of 16 days of migraine headaches each month. On each headache day, participants averaged migraine pain for 5 hours. They reported that this significantly affected their quality of life, despite taking conventional treatments for migraines.

The researchers randomly assigned participants to one of three groups. The first group consumed a diet high in n-3 fatty acids. The second group consumed a diet high in n-3 fatty acids and low in n-6 fatty acids. The third group acted as a control and ate a diet containing a similar amount of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids that people in the United States typically consume.

The participants continued the diets for 16 weeks and recorded the number of migraine episodes they experienced during this time.

The researchers found that the people who ate a diet high in n-3 fatty acids and low in n-6 fatty acids experienced on average four fewer headache days per month than those in the control group. Their headaches were also, on average, 1.7 hours shorter per day than people who ate a standard diet.

The group that consumed a diet high in n-3 fatty acids but without reducing n-6 fatty acids also saw improvements in the frequency and severity of their headaches.

However, in general, the participants did not report a significant improvement in their quality of life.

Medical News Today spoke with Dr. Daisy Zamora of the Department of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a co-author of the study, “the molecules that your body makes from the fatty acids we targeted in this study have been linked to pain processes in animal models. Thus, the intent of the study was to test whether the diets could decrease pain.” She continued:

“We assumed that less pain would automatically lead to improved quality of life, and it does to some extent. However, if a person starts with 16 days of headaches per month and we decrease it to 12 days, the headaches will still have an important impact on their quality of life.”

“It would be good to know if keeping [to] the diet for a longer period could further reduce the pain, as it can take several months for the concentration of fatty acids in tissues to adapt to the dietary changes.”

The researchers suggest that despite these preliminary findings, people who experience chronic migraine could consider dietary interventions.

Dr. Ramsden told MNT that “this is the first moderate-sized controlled trial showing that targeted changes in diet can decrease physical pain. The biochemical findings support the biological plausibility of this type of approach, but we still know very little.”

“Diets are generally safe,” he explained, “so it is reasonable for patients to try dietary changes as an adjunct approach to managing migraine, under the supervision of their healthcare provider.”

According to Dr. Rebecca Burch, a member of the board of directors of the American Headache Society and author of an editorial covering the present research, “these results support recommending a high omega-3 diet to patients in clinical practice.”

“The major barrier to [the] widespread success of any dietary intervention is adherence because strict diets require time, financial investment, and change in habits,” she continues, “Therefore, it will be crucial for future research to determine how easy or difficult it is for patients to implement diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids at home, with or without lowering intake of omega 6.”

“A clear template developed by nutritionists and patients would also be valuable to help people with migraine sustain these diets over longer time periods,” Dr. Burch concludes.

Medical News Today also contacted Dr. Parisa Gazerani, an Associate Professor in the Laboratory of Molecular Pharmacology, Department of Health Science and Technology, Faculty of Medicine, Aalborg University, Denmark, who is an expert on migraine disorders. She explained that, while diet may play an important role in managing migraine, people with migraine should not at this stage buy omega-3 fatty acid supplements.

“Several other factors (disease comorbidity, sex, age, state of polypharmacy, etc.) must be considered in diet alterations and careful consultation with a dietitian is important in the choice of diet, in terms of both content and quantity,” she explained.

In conclusion, Dr. Gazerani said: “It seems that dietary intervention in migraine patients might become a case with a ‘precision medicine’ approach, in which determinant factors for individual patients can collectively help in reaching a successful outcome.”