A new study reveals that a diet high in fatty fish oils can help ease migraine pain. Frequent migraine sufferers on the fish diet had fewer, less intense migraines than participants eating a diet high in vegetable fats.

Researchers from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) participated in the study. Parts of the National Institutes of Health and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill also attended. The findings have been published in the July 3, 2021, issue of The BMJ.

The research was built upon the team’s prior studies on how linoleic acid impacted chronic pain. Linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fatty acid, is found in corn, soybean, and similar oils, nuts, and seeds. The team’s previous research investigated if linoleic acid exacerbated migraine pain processing tissues and pathways in the trigeminal nerve. This is the largest, most intricate of the body’s twelve cranial nerves. This research discovered that a diet low in linoleic acid but high in omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish) could reduce migraine pain.

The study proving how fatty fish oils can reduce migraines

This current study involved 182 adults who experienced frequent migraines. The participants underwent a 16-week dietary intervention following a specific diet plan. Researchers randomly assigned them to one of three healthy diets, including fish, veggies, hummus, salads, and breakfast foods.

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They received meal kits that followed these guidelines:

  1. The first group received meals that had high levels of fatty fish oils and low linoleic acid.
  2. A second group’s meals had high levels of fatty fish and higher linoleic acid.
  3. The last group received meals high in linoleic acid but lower in fatty fish, which resembles the standard American diet.

During the study period, participants took note of their migraine frequency, duration and intensity. They also kept tabs on how their headaches impacted their work, school, and social lives. Finally, the volunteers observed how often they needed pain medications to manage symptoms.

At the beginning of the study, participants average over sixteen migraine days per month. They experienced over five hours of migraine pain per headache each day. They also had baseline scores revealing a significant impact on quality of life even while taking multiple pain medications.

The results: fatty fish oils cause a marked decrease in migraines

The researchers discovered that a diet lower in vegetable oil but higher in fatty fish oils produced the best results. Migraine sufferers had between 30-40% reductions in the following areas compared to the control group:

  • total headache hours per day
  • severe headache hours per day
  • overall headache days per month

Blood samples taken from the participants eating more fatty fish oils revealed lower levels of pain-related lipids. However, even though they had fewer, less intense migraines, they reported only minor improvements in quality of life. Still, the diet high in fatty fish oils produced better results than the high linoleic acid and fatty fish diet.

Migraines consistently rank among the most common causes of chronic pain, sick days from work, and reduced quality of life. It’s also one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. Over four million people worldwide suffer from chronic migraines at least fifteen days per month. Over 90% of sufferers can’t work or function normally during an attack, lasting from four hours to three days.

Women between the ages of 18 and 44 have a heightened risk of migraines. Around 18% of all American women suffer from migraines. Migraine medications can reduce pain but usually don’t eliminate symptoms. They also have adverse side effects such as sedation, dependence, or addiction.

Nature is the best medicine.

“This research found intriguing evidence that dietary changes have the potential for improving a very debilitating chronic pain condition like a migraine without the related downsides of often prescribed medications,” said Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., Ph.D., scientific director of NIA.

Chris Ramsden, a clinical investigator in the NIA and NIAAA intramural research programs, led the NIH team. Ramsden and his team study how lipids impact aging, especially chronic pain, and neurodegenerative conditions. Fatty acid compounds found in various natural oils, lipids help support many vital functions in the body.

Lipid mediators known as oxylipins help regulate pain and inflammation. Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids act as precursors to oxylipins but produce opposite effects. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish oils, for example, help reduce pain. However, Omega-6 fatty acids exacerbate pain and inflammation.

“Changes in diet could offer some relief for the millions of Americans who suffer from migraine pain,” said Ramsden. “It’s further evidence that the foods we eat can influence pain pathways.”

The researchers said the study shows promise for people who suffer from frequent migraines. Researchers say that following a diet high in fatty fish oils but low in linoleic acid may prevent migraines better than fish oil supplements. Plus, these dietary changes reduce the need for pain medication. The team hopes to expand upon the research in the future, studying how diet can impact other chronic conditions.

fatty fish oils
Final thoughts on the study showing how fatty fish oils can reduce migraines

Omega-3 fatty acids in foods like fatty fish oils have many health benefits. Better cognitive function, increased energy, lower cholesterol, and reduced risk of depression and anxiety have all been linked to Omega-3s. However, a new study reveals that fatty acids may reduce migraine frequency and severity.

The study found that people eating a diet high in fatty fish oils and low in linoleic acid had 30-40% fewer migraines per month. Their migraines also decreased, and they didn’t need medication as often. Researchers say that the research provides proof that dietary changes can bring relief for migraine sufferers. Hopefully, they will discover how a diet high in fatty fish oils can improve other health conditions in the future.