Eating a Mediterranean diet containing lots of oily fish could help to reduce the frequency of migraines in people who suffer from them, data suggests.
Roughly 10 million adults in the UK suffer from migraines, with women three times more likely to be affected than men. Although several new treatments have become available in recent years, many people continue to experience pain.
Both Omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish and certain nuts and seeds, and Omega-6 fatty acids, found in refined vegetable oils, are precursors to pain-regulating molecules called oxylipins, with those derived from the former having pain-reducing effects, and the latter having pain-amplifying effects.
Dr Christopher Ramsden at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, US, and colleagues decided to test whether altering the relative ratio of these fats in people’s diets had any impact on the frequency or severity of their migraines.
They recruited 182 patients who suffered from migraine headaches between five and 20 days a month, and randomly assigned them to eat one of three diets for 16 weeks: one that raised Omega-3 but kept Omega-6 fatty acids the same; another which raised Omega-3 and lowered Omega-6; and a control diet that included typical levels of both fatty acids.
The diets were designed to be as similar to one another as possible, with the main difference being the type of oil or butter, and the main protein source (eg. oily fish v low-fat fish or poultry), that the participants were provided with.
The research, published in the British Medical Journal, found that both of the interventional diets increased levels of a pain-reducing oxylipin, compared with the control diet. They also significantly reduced the frequency of people’s migraines – by 1.3 headache hours a day and two headache days a month for those in the high-Omega-3 group, and by 1.7 headache hours a day and four headache days a month for those eating a high-Omega-3, low-Omega-6 diet.
While the diets did not significantly reduce the severity of people’s headaches, there was a trend towards shorter headaches.
However, most of the participants were women, so this approach may not work in children, men or older adults, and it is also still unknown whether other sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are effective, so that vegetarians and those worried about sustainability and fish stocks can also benefit, said Dr Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian and lead for nutrition and evidence based medicine at the University of Aston in Birmingham.
It remains unclear whether the benefits were solely down to changes in Omega-3 fatty acids, said Tom Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition and dietetics and King’s College London: “For example, increasing the intake of salmon also increases the intake of several other micronutrients such as vitamin D and selenium as well as the intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.”