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Following a plant-based diet rich in dark, leafy vegetables could reduce the effects of migraine, a new study finds. Jimena Roquero/Stocksy
  • In the United States, 1 in 6 adults reports experiencing migraine and severe headaches.
  • Current treatment includes removing dietary triggers, reducing stress, and taking medication.
  • A recent case report describes how one person achieved long-term migraine relief and needed less medication by following a diet that included more dark, leafy greens.
  • The authors of the report conclude that the whole food, plant-based diet may have these effects by increasing beta carotenoid levels or helping people whose migraine does not respond to medication identify potential triggers.

Migraine ranks second among the causes of global disability. In young women, specifically, it is the leading cause.

In the U.S. alone, over 40 million people have this often-disabling neurological disorder. Still, treatment options are limited, and conventional approaches may not always lead to dramatic improvement.

This was true for a 60-year-old man who lived with migraine episodes for 12 years. His migraine became chronic 6 months before he saw the authors of a recent case study published in the BMJ.

The man had already received standard treatment, eliminated known triggers from his diet, and engaged in stress reduction techniques, such as meditation and yoga. These failed to improve his symptoms.

Then, as part of a study on the links between diet and migraine, he switched to a plant-based diet called the Low Inflammatory Foods Everyday (LIFE) diet.

After a few weeks, the man experienced remarkable relief from his severe, frequent migraine episodes.

His case represents the longest that migraine has gone into remission solely as a result of dietary intervention, the authors of the report believe.

They conclude that while more research is necessary, a plant-based, whole food diet could represent a migraine treatment.

What is migraine?

Migraine can be a severe, disabling disorder. There are two types: episodic and chronic.

If a person has episodicmigraine, they experience related pain on fewer than 15 days per month. If a person has these headaches on more than 15 days a month for over 3 months, doctors classify the condition as chronic.

A migraine episode typically lasts 4–72 hours and involves a severe, throbbing headache that gets worse with movement or exposure to light, sound, or smell. These headaches may be followed by a phase that involves tiredness, poor concentration, and sensitivity to sound, called a “migraine hangover.”

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Current therapy involves medication and avoiding triggers. Many diets may help, including a low glycemic diet, ketogenic diet, and low fat diet.

Dr. David Dunaief, the senior author of the study, Dr. Brittany Perzia, the lead author, and Dr. Joshua Dunaief, a contributing author, investigated the benefits of the LIFE diet, which is especially rich in dark green leafy vegetables, which are essential sources of many vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

After switching to the LIFE diet, the person reported a dramatic reduction in the frequency of migraine episodes, down from 18–24 per month to one per month at his 2-month follow-up appointment.

The relief he experienced was rapid, the researchers said.

“This patient was incapacitated by migraines on an almost daily basis, prior to starting the LIFE diet. At the 2-month mark, the patient stopped his migraine medications. At 3 months, there was a complete cessation of migraines,” said Dr. David Dunaief.

As part of the new diet, the man consumed one 32-ounce (oz) LIFE smoothie every day, which contains ingredients such as kale or spinach, blueberries, and flax seeds.

He also consumed 5 oz of dark green leafy vegetables and limited the amount of whole grains, starchy vegetables, oils, dairy, and red meat he consumed daily.

The diet has been the subject of previous research, such as a study from 2019 and one from 2020.

After 3 months of considerable migraine relief, the man decided to add some foods and drinks back into his diet for a 3-month trial period. He found that iced tea, salmon, and egg whites, staples of his previous diet, triggered moderate, short-lived headaches that aspirin could relieve.

Overall, since his switch to the LIFE diet, the man has remained migraine-free for 7 years.

The researchers believe that the change may stem from carotenoids or beta carotene, which are abundant in dark green leafy vegetables. They also believe that the diet may have helped the man identify triggers.

Carotenoids and beta carotene are compounds that can reduce systemic inflammation and oxidative stress, which are implicated in migraine.

Though the man primarily had a plant-based diet rich in beta carotenes before adopting the LIFE diet — eating sweet potato daily — he still experienced severe migraine. Medical News Today asked Dr. David Dunaief about this difference.

“What I found from years of practice is that beta carotene supplements, green vegetable powders, and carotenoid-rich starchy vegetables such as sweet potato don’t work. They raise the beta carotene levels but they don’t have clinical effects,” he said.

In addition, “Beta carotene supplements have been found to be potentially dangerous, increasing the risk of lung cancer in smokers and increasing heart disease,” the researcher cautioned.

The LIFE diet, by comparison, may be a safe, nutrient-rich way to treat migraine and other chronic diseases, he said.

The 2019 and 2020 investigations into the LIFE diet, which included the same authors, among others, found significantly reduced C-reactive protein (CRP) levels in people who tried the diet.

The higher the level of CRP, the more inflammation in the body, and greater the risk of related diseases, which may be rheumatologic or cardiac, for example.

The authors of the present report found that the man’s CRP levels remained largely stable, which they believe reflect the fact that he had already had a healthy, mostly plant-based diet.

The team instead focused on raising his levels of plant nutrients, or phytonutrients.

Dr. David Dunaief suggested that the migraine-reducing benefits of the LIFE diet may stem from the phytonutrients in plants, rather than beta carotene alone.

“We used the rise in blood levels of beta carotene as a surrogate marker of phytonutrients. The increasing phytonutrients most likely caused the reversal of migraines,” he told MNT.

Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, medical director of the Dent Neurologic Institute and professor of neurology and neuro-oncology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, stressed that everyone responds differently to dietary interventions.

Still, he told MNT: “It may be plausible that some patients could achieve relief by changing to a plant-based [LIFE] diet, which does not include any foods that would cause inflammation. Research has shown that alterations to the gut microbiota can have a significant impact on migraine.”

Regarding dietary changes, Dr. Mechtler elaborated:

“A patient’s diet should always be evaluated, especially when certain foods are thought to be headache/migraine triggers. That being said, I would not typically advise my patients to completely upend their typical dietary regimen. It is also important to note that such dietary changes cannot be taken lightly, as it is important for individuals to get the proper nutrition.”

He highlighted the importance of educating people about nutrition, adding that many people do not have a high enough intake of vegetables, and that increasing this has led to “an improvement in migraine/headache symptomatology.”

The researchers behind the case report believe that their patient’s remarkable improvement suggests that many people with migraine-like disorders may benefit from adopting the LIFE diet.

“It is so important what you put in your mouth. The LIFE diet is an effective complement to conventional medicine and may be a route to reversing, preventing, and treating chronic diseases with lasting results.”
– Dr. David Dunaief

However, he stressed the need for large, prospective, randomized clinical trials of whole food and plant-based diets, to determine which people with which conditions would benefit.

“In the meantime, there’s little downside for patients, when properly managed by their physicians, to trying this diet for a few weeks, or ideally, months,” he said.