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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Diet Changes Can Reduce Migraine Headaches

A woman holds her forehead with her hand and bows her head

Women between the ages of 18 and 44 are especially prone to migraines.


A diet higher in fatty fish helped frequent migraine sufferers reduce the frequency of headaches and intensity of pain compared to participants on a diet higher in vegetable-based fats and oils, according to a new study. The findings—by a team of researchers from NIA, NIAAA and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—were published in The BMJ

This study of 182 adults with frequent migraines expanded on the team’s previous work on the impact of linoleic acid (a polyunsaturated fatty acid derived from corn, soybean and similar oils) on chronic pain. The earlier study found that a diet lower in linoleic acid and higher in omega-3 fatty acids (like those found in fish) could soothe this pain-pathway inflammation.

When the study began, participants averaged more than 16 headache days per month, over 5 hours of migraine pain per headache day, despite using multiple headache medications. In a 16-week dietary intervention, participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 healthy diet plans and received meal kits with foods containing varying levels of omega-3 and linoleic acid. 

The diet lower in vegetable oil and higher in fatty fish produced between 30 and 40 percent 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. 

Migraine, a neurological disease, ranks among the most common causes of chronic pain, lost work time and lowered quality of life. More than 4 million people worldwide have chronic migraine and more than 90 percent of sufferers are unable to work or function normally during an attack, which can last anywhere from 4 hours to 3 days. Current medications for migraine usually offer only partial relief and can have negative side effects including sedation and the possibility of dependence or addiction.

NIA scientific director Dr. Luigi Ferrucci said, “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.”

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