BALTIMORE, Md. — Omega-3 fatty acids have become something of a wonder treatment for all sorts of ailments. Studies show getting this nutrient from foods like fish or through dietary supplements may help fight off everything from inflammation, to asthma, to heart disease. Now, scientists say sticking to a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids may provide significant relief to people dealing with migraines.
The new study finds eating an omega-3-rich diet reduces the severity and number of painful headaches patients suffer each month. Along with increasing omega-3 intake, researchers note lowering the amount of omega-6 fatty acids is also key to migraine relief.
What are omega-6 fatty acids?
Study authors explain that most modern, industrialized diets contain very little omega-3, but high levels of omega-6. Both of these fatty acids are precursors to oxylipins, molecules which regulate pain and inflammation throughout the body. However, that’s where the similarities end.
Scientists find that oxylipins coming from omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce pain. Meanwhile, oxylipins from omega-6 fatty acids worsen pain and can actually trigger a migraine.
With this in mind, a team from Maryland and North Carolina set out to see if increasing omega-3 consumption also increases levels of pain-reducing 17-hydroxydocosahexaenoic acid (17-HDHA). Doing so, researchers say, may be the key to treating headaches without needing expensive medications.
Is a diet change better than aspirin?
Study authors gathered 182 patients with a history of suffering migraines five to 20 days each month. Most of the participants were female (88%) with an average age of 38.
The team randomly assigned each volunteer to one of three diet programs for 16 weeks. One group stuck to a control diet with typical levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found in normal foods. The other two diets increased the amount of omega-3 each person consumed however, one diet kept the normal levels of omega-6 fatty acids while the other one lowered them.
Each dieter kept track of their monthly migraines using the headache impact test (HIT-6). This questionnaire measures how much a headache impacts a person’s quality of life.
Results reveal that dieters in both omega-3-rich groups experienced significant improvements when it comes to how many migraines they have each month. Researchers report that participants on the high omega-3 diet experienced 1.3 few headaches hours each day and two fewer headaches each month.
Dieters on the high omega-3, low omega-6 plan had even greater success. They cut their migraines by 1.7 headaches hours per day and had four fewer headaches each month. Study authors add the results suggest there’s an added benefit to not only increasing omega-3 fatty acids, but also cutting omega-6 out all together.
Will eating more omega-3 improve quality of life?
Surprisingly, the HIT-6 scores show participants did not experience a dramatic turnaround in their quality of life by consuming more omega-3. They did, however, report experiencing shorter and less severe headaches thanks to their diet change.
Researchers caution that, while this was a well-designed trial, the results may not be the same for everyone — since most of the participants were younger women.
“While the diets did not significantly improve quality of life, they produced large, robust reductions in frequency and severity of headaches relative to the control diet,” researchers write in a media release.
“This study provides a biologically plausible demonstration that pain can be treated through targeted dietary alterations in humans. Collective findings suggest causal mechanisms linking n-3 and n-6 fatty acids to [pain regulation], and open the door to new approaches for managing chronic pain in humans.”
Researchers published their findings in The BMJ.