Migraines are a neurological disease that rank among the most common causes of chronic pain, lost work time, and lowered quality of life. If you suffer from regular migraines, you are among the 4 million people worldwide who have have chronic migraines (at least 15 migraine days per month). What if you knew about one change you could make to your diet to reduce the frequency and pain of migraines?
A change suggested by a recent study is to eat more healthy fats. Research points to a diet lower in linoleic acid and higher in levels of omega-3 fatty acids (like those found in fish and shellfish) could soothe the pain pathway that leads to chronic inflammation and migraines.
Statistics on migraines:
- Up to 90% of chronic sufferers are unable to work or function normally during an attack, which can last anywhere from four hours to three days.
- Women between the ages of 18 and 44 are especially prone to migraines, and an estimated 18% of all American women are affected.
- Current medications for migraine usually offer only partial relief and can have negative side effects.
In a study, published in the British Medical Journal, of adults with frequent migraines, a diet higher in fatty fish helped frequent migraine sufferers reduce their monthly number of headaches and intensity of pain compared to participants on a diet higher in vegetable-based fats and oils. Scientists found that linoleic acid inflamed migraine-related pain processing tissues and pathways in the trigeminal nerve, the largest and most complex of the body’s 12 cranial nerves.
How did eating healthy fats reduce frequency and pain of migraines?
In the 16-week dietary intervention, participants were randomly assigned to one of three healthy diet plans, and all received meal kits that included fish, vegetables, hummus, salads, and breakfast items. One group received meals that had high levels of fatty fish or oils from fatty fish and lowe linoleic acid. A second group received meals that had high levels of fatty fish and higher linoleic acid. The third group received meals with high linoleic acid and lower levels of fatty fish to mimic average U.S. intakes.
Participants monitored their number of migraine days, duration, and intensity, along with how their headaches affected their abilities to function at work, school, and in their social lives, and how often they needed to take pain medications. When the study began, participants averaged more than 16 headache days per month, over five hours of migraine pain per headache day, and had baseline scores showing a severe impact on quality of life despite using multiple headache medications.
Eating healthy fats reduced migraine frequency by 40%
The study results were quite striking:
- The diet lower in vegetable oil and higher in fatty fish 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.
- Blood samples from this group of participants also had lower levels of pain-related lipids. Despite the reduction in headache frequency and pain.
- These same participants reported only minor improvements in migraine-related overall quality of life compared to other groups in the study.
Current medications for migraine usually offer only partial relief and can have negative side effects including sedation, and the possibility of dependence or addiction. “This research found intriguing evidence that dietary changes have potential for improving a very debilitating chronic pain condition like migraine without the related downsides of often prescribed medications,” said Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., Ph.D.
Finding alternatives to addictive medications for migraines
Licensed naturopathic doctors are trained to help you reduce frequent migraines and find treatments that do not solely rely on pharmaceutical drugs. First, an ND will work with you to identify and treat the underlying cause. As naturopathic doctor, Amy Rothenberg explains in an article, Natural Relief for Migraine Headache Symptoms, “no two people with migraines are the same, and therefore treatment plans will need to be highly personalized. NDs will take time needed to understand your health history, family history, the nature of your headaches and to contextualize that information within the rest of your overall health– physical, emotional and cognitive.”
Naturopathic doctors use a therapy model called the Therapeutic Order to provide gentle but effective first treatment options to support the body’s innate healing capacity. These may include: anti-inflammatory diet, like the one described above; identifying trigger foods, working on hydration; botanicals and dietary supplements; essential oils and aromatherapy; developing mindfulness and stress reduction practices; evaluating toxin exposure; and even adding acupuncture and skeletal alignment.
Reference: Ramsden C E, Zamora D, Faurot K R, MacIntosh B, Horowitz M, Keyes G S et al. Dietary alteration of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids for headache reduction in adults with migraine: randomized controlled trial BMJ 2021; 374 :n1448 doi:10.1136/bmj.n1448