You may want to avoid junk food, as a new study found that altering one’s diet to include specific classes of fatty acids reduced headaches in patients over a 16-week period. The study’s findings have been published in the journal ‘The BMJ’.
Migraine is a leading cause of disability worldwide. Existing treatments are frequently insufficient to provide patients with complete relief. This study demonstrated another strategy patients can use to experience fewer migraines and headaches – dietary changes.
“Our forefathers consumed significantly different amounts and types of fats than we do today,” said co-first author Daisy Zamora, PhD, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry.
“Polyunsaturated fatty acids, which our bodies cannot produce, have increased significantly in our diet as a result of the addition of oils such as corn, soybean, and cottonseed to a variety of processed foods such as chips, crackers, and granola,” Zamora continued.
Omega-6 (n-6) and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are the classes of polyunsaturated fatty acids examined in this study (n-3). Both have critical functions in the body but must be balanced, as n-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation while some n-6 fatty acid derivatives have been shown to promote pain.
However, as a result of the amount of processed food consumed today, the majority of people in the United States consume significantly more n-6 fatty acids and significantly less n-3 fatty acids.
To determine whether the amount of these fatty acids in a person’s diet has an effect on headache pain, 182 patients diagnosed with migraines and seeking treatment were enrolled in this randomised, controlled trial led by Doug Mann, MD, professor of Neurology and Internal Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Along with their current treatments, patients followed one of three diets for 16 weeks: a control diet that maintained the average amount of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids consumed by a person living in the United States, an increased n-3 and maintained n-6 fatty acids diet, or an increased n-3 and decreased n-6 fatty acids diet.
Participants received approximately two-thirds of their daily dietary requirements and were also given an electronic diary to track the number of hours per day they experienced headache pain.
“Participants appeared to be highly motivated to adhere to these diets as a result of the severity of their pain,” said Beth MacIntosh, MPH, RD, clinical nutrition manager for the UNC Metabolic and Nutrition Research Core.
“The findings are quite encouraging,” Zamora stated. “Patients on either diet reported less pain than those in the control group. Those who consumed a diet high in n-3 fatty acids and low in n-6 fatty acids saw the greatest improvement.”
Participants reported fewer headache days per month, and some were able to reduce the amount of pain medication they required. However, participants reported no improvement in their quality of life.
“I believe that modifying one’s diet could have a significant effect,” Zamora said. “The effect we observed in terms of headache reduction is comparable to that observed with certain medications. The caveat is that, while participants reported fewer headaches, their perceptions of how headaches affected them did not change.”
“This study examined n-3 fatty acids derived from fish rather than dietary supplements,” said study co-author Keturah Faurot, an assistant professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the Program on Integrative Medicine. “Our findings do not apply to the use of dietary supplements.”
Zamora stated that the biochemical hypothesis regarding how certain fatty acids affect pain is applicable to a broad range of chronic pain conditions. She and her colleagues are currently conducting a new study to examine the effects of diet modification on other types of pain.
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