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Holy mackerel!

One billion people around the world, including 12% of Americans, suffer from migraines. However, a new study may offer hope for those who suffer from migraines and are looking for dietary options that could provide relief. 

We have known for a while that certain foods can trigger migraines. But, the study found that making specific dietary changes can reduce the frequency and severity of headaches for migraine sufferers. 

People who ate a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly while also reducing their intake of omega-6 fats, reported shorter and less severe headaches than those who ate a typical American diet. According to their findings published in The BMJ, the researchers said that the reductions in headaches were “large and “robust.”

“The reduction in headache days per month that we saw was impressive. It was similar to what we see with some medications that are being used as migraine preventatives, and that’s very exciting,” Daisy Zamora, study co-author and researcher at National Institute on Aging and assistant psychiatry professor at the UNC School of Medicine.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are types of healthy fat that we must get from food. But, of course, in the typical American diet, they are unbalanced. Zamora said that Americans now eat at least twice the amount of omega-6s that our ancestors ate. For example, Linoleic acid, the predominant omega-6 in the Western diet, is found everywhere in vegetable oils, including corn, safflower, and soybean, so it’s abundant in pastries, crackers, and snacks, and other processed foods.

Zamora noted that the molecules made when the body digests omega-6 fats are linked to pain processes and are known to trigger pain. Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, have anti-inflammatory properties. Cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines, and plant-based sources include walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are the best sources of omega 3s. 

For the study, researchers enrolled 182 people who suffered migraines five to 20 days per month. Two-thirds of the participants met the criteria of having chronic migraines.

They were then randomly assigned to follow one of three diets for 16 weeks:

Average U.S. diet: This was the control group. It contained the typical levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids eaten by Americans.

High omega-3 diet: This plan included lots of fatty fish — salmon and tuna every day — raising the intake of certain omega-3 fats (known as EPA and DHA) to 1.5 grams a day. 

High omega-3 + low omega-6 diet: Similar to the other plan, but this diet also simultaneously lowered omega-6 intake to below one-fourth of that on the typical U.S. diet. This group cooked with macadamia nut oil, olive oil, coconut oil, or butter instead of the typical vegetable oils and ate snacks low in linoleic acid.

Each participant kept a diary to monitor their migraines and record the frequency and intensity of their headaches and how they impacted their life.

In the beginning, participants averaged about 16 headache days per month and almost five hours and 30 minutes per day, despite each taking several medications to combat the pain.

After four months of eating on their specified plans, the high omega-3 + low omega-6 diet group saw 30% – 40% reductions in total headache hours per day, severe headache hours per day, and overall headache days per month compared to the control group.

Just boosting omega-3 fats without reducing omega-6s also showed benefits, but not as strong as making both those changes.

 Dr. Rebecca Burch, a headache medicine specialist and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, called the findings “remarkable” in an accompanying editorial to the study published in the BMJ. She explained that “These results support recommending a high omega-3 diet to patients in clinical practice. (They) take us one step closer to a goal long sought by headache patients and those who care for them: a migraine diet backed up by robust clinical trial results.”

This study says nothing about the benefit of supplements, Zamora said. 

She added that the preference is for people to boost their omega-3 intake by eating food rather than just ingesting a pill.

The diet was tested as an addition to medication — not as a replacement for it. Migraine sufferers should ask their doctors if they should add it to the treatment they’re already receiving.

Zamora said that the diet, with lots of fish on the menu every day, is “doable” but might be challenging to follow for some people. “It takes a motivated person to be able to carry it out for sure.” Dr. Burch stated that it will be crucial for future studies to find out how difficult it is for patients to follow a high omega-3 diet at home.

Even though participants suffered fewer, shorter, and less severe headaches, they didn’t feel the changes significantly improved their quality of life. That’s consistent with the reality of migraines and how debilitating they are, Zamora said.

She pointed out: “If a person has 16 (headache) days out of a month and they’re able to lower that to 12 days, that is a huge reduction — an extra four days pain-free.” Adding, “But if at the end of the month you ask them, ‘Did your pain have a big impact in your life?’ The answer is still yes because 12 days a month is still a big impact.”

Here’s hoping that all the migraine sufferers get some relief soon. Go grill some salmon with a side of mackerel.