Study suggests that a diet with a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, compared to omega-6 fats, reduces migraines


For most of her life, Tanya Kamka has had migraines every week.

The headaches usually came on gradually, then increased, causing excruciating pain and pressure behind his left eye that resulted in an upset stomach or a visit to the emergency room. The ordeal often left her weak and exhausted for days.

“Every time I had a migraine, I was devastated for three or four days,” said Kamka, 58, a post office worker who lives near Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “I missed a lot of work because of migraines.”

But a few years ago, Kamka and 181 other people who regularly suffer from migraines joined a clinical trial, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, which aimed to test whether a special diet could relieve their frequent headaches. The diet Kamka was instructed to follow emphasized foods that contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, the oils found in some fish, while limiting foods high in omega-6 fatty acids, such than many vegetable oils.

Omega-3s and Omega-6s are both considered essential fatty acids – essential for health, and because our bodies cannot make them, they must be obtained from food. Historically, humans have consumed roughly equivalent amounts of both fatty acids. But today’s typical American diet tends to contain a much higher proportion of omega-6 fatty acids.

Some health authorities see this as a good thing: Numerous studies have shown that vegetable oils and other rich sources of omega-6 fatty acids are beneficial for cardiovascular health. But others argue that this could be problematic because omega-6 fats have been shown to promote pain and inflammation, while omega-3 fats tend to have the opposite effect in research subjects. helping to reduce pain and inflammation.

The authors of the new study wanted to know: Could a diet that increases omega-3 fats while reducing omega-6 fats make life easier for people with frequent migraines?

For Kamka, the benefits of a change in diet were striking: After a few months of increasing her fish intake and avoiding many common vegetable oils, she noticed that her headaches were all but gone. Others on the new diet also reported fewer headaches.

Although the trial ended after 16 weeks, Kamka stayed on. Gone are the days when she ate foods like fried chicken, French fries and potato chips cooked in vegetable oils rich in omega-6 fatty acids. She makes a point of eating foods like cod, tuna, sardines, spinach salads, hummus and avocados, and she cooks with olive oil instead of corn oils. , soy and canola.

“I haven’t had a migraine, not even a mild one, for over two years,” she said. “Going from having one a week to not having one was just amazing to me.”


Migraines are one of the most common causes of chronic pain, affecting about 12% of all Americans, mostly women.

For many people, the disease can be debilitating, causing severe pain, nausea, and other symptoms, and greatly increasing the likelihood of developing depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that migraine attacks can also affect productivity in the workplace, causing people to lose, on average, about four days of work per year.

But the new study provides evidence that a good diet may provide relief for some people who suffer from frequent migraine attacks, helping them reduce the number and severity of their headaches. Similar studies are underway to assess whether dietary changes might help relieve other types of painful chronic conditions, such as lower back pain.

Lead author Dr Christopher E. Ramsden said the findings suggest dietary changes may be a useful addition to existing treatments for chronic pain.

“Many people with chronic pain continue to suffer despite taking medication,” said Ramsden, clinical researcher in the National Institute on Aging’s intramural research program. “I think this is something that could be integrated with other treatments to improve their quality of life and reduce their pain.”

For the new trial, published in the BMJ in July, participants were randomly divided into three groups and followed for 16 weeks. One group, which included Kamka, were on a diet high in omega-3 fats and relatively low in omega-6 fats: they ate a lot of foods like wild salmon, albacore tuna, and trout, while trying to minimize the sources. rich in omega-. 6 fats such as corn, soybean and canola oils.

Participants in research into the effect of a diet low in omega-6 fatty acids and high in omega-3 experienced four fewer migraine days per month. (The New York Times / Margeaux Walter)


To facilitate diet monitoring, all subjects received meals, snacks, and recipes prepared by a dietitian throughout the study.

Vegetable oils rich in omega-6s are abundant in the American diet. They are often used for cooking and are found in many packaged foods and restaurant meals. To see if reducing these fats could have an effect on migraines, the researchers asked a second group of people to add more fish and other rich sources of omega-3s to their diet without decreasing their intake. omega-6.

A third group of people, serving as controls, consumed typical amounts of both types of fat.

At the start of the study, participants experienced, on average, about 16 “headache days” per month. But after 16 weeks, the group that increased their fish intake and avoided vegetable oils had an average of four fewer “headache days” each month compared to the control group, as well as a 30% reduction to 40. % of “headache hours” each day. The group that increased their omega-3 intake without reducing their omega-6 intake also benefited, although they had less improvement by two fewer headache-free days each month. Both of these groups reported shorter and less severe headaches than people in the control group. They also used less pain relievers like acetaminophen.

The researchers also noticed differences in important blood biomarkers. Both groups who increased their fish intake had higher levels of compounds called oxylipins, which are involved in pain relief. They had particularly high levels of 17-HDHA, an oxylipine that in other studies has been shown to reduce pain in people with arthritis.


Dr Rebecca Burch, a neurologist who was not involved in the new study, said the results were striking. She wrote an editorial in the BMJ noting that studies have shown that recently approved migraine medications produced two to two and a half fewer “headache days” per month compared to placebo, which is less. to the four-day reduction caused by the high omega-3 and low omega-6 diet.

“Four days a month is really beating anything we’ve seen from pharmacologic preventive therapy,” said Burch, headache medicine specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Burch said people with migraines are often motivated to follow restrictive diets to try and find relief from their condition. But so far, there hasn’t been a lot of evidence that a particular diet works. “This is the first time that we have had a solid, solid diet that we can recommend to patients,” she added.

For people who want to try the diet for themselves, the researchers said the easiest way to increase omega-3 intake is to eat more fatty fish, such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel, salmon, albacore tuna and trout. Some of the best and most affordable options are canned and bagged fish.


For vegetarians, good plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids are ground flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.

Another important part of the diet is to avoid fried, processed, and fast foods, which are typically made with oils that are low in omega-3s and high in omega-6s. Beth MacIntosh, co-author of the new study, said extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia oil, coconut oil and butter tend to contain low amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.

You can use these oils to cook meals or to make your own snacks, like popcorn, hummus, and granola. The researchers also encouraged the study participants to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

“Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in omega-6 fatty acids – and they’re just plain healthy,” said MacIntosh, clinical nutrition manager for the Metabolic & Nutrition Research Core at UNC Health in Chapel Hill.

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