A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids could reduce migraines, according to a small study.
Researchers found that a diet high in omega-3s – found in supplements and oily fish – can reduce persistent headaches by two to four per month.
According to the NHS, a healthy, balanced diet should include at least two servings of fish a week, including one serving of oily fish.
Oily fish – like salmon and sardines – are particularly rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the heart.
The new study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), enrolled 182 people (88% of whom were women with a typical age of 38) who had migraines five to 20 days a month.
The women were divided into three groups, with the amount of omega-3 fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid – EPA and docosahexaenoic acid – DHA) varying according to their diet, while omega-6 linoleic acid was also monitored.
Dieting increased the amount of EPA and DHA to 1.5 g per day and kept linoleic acid at about 7% of energy intake.
A second diet increased EPA and DHA to 1.5 g per day and lowered linoleic acid to less than 1.8% of energy, while the other control diet increased EPA and DHA to less than 150 mg per day and linoleic acid to about 7% of energy maintained.
The diets were chosen because previous research suggested that omega-3s have analgesic effects, while omega-6s can make pain worse and trigger migraines.
During the study, participants were provided with oil and butter formulations, as well as protein foods, including fish, that are necessary to achieve fatty acid goals.
They also completed a headache impact test on their quality of life.
The frequency of headaches was recorded daily in an electronic diary.
The results showed that the incidence of headaches was statistically significantly reduced in both groups with the high omega-3 diet.
The omega-3-rich diet was associated with a reduction of 1.3 hours of headache per day and two headache days per month.
Meanwhile, the high omega-3 and low omega-6 diet group saw 1.7 hours of headache reduction per day and four headache days per month.
Women in the high omega-3 groups also reported shorter and less severe headaches compared to those in the control group.
The experts, including from the University of North Carolina, said the study had limitations, including that it was limited to relatively young women.
But they added, “Although the diets did not significantly improve quality of life, they resulted in large, robust reductions in the frequency and severity of headaches compared to the control diet.
“This study provides biologically plausible evidence that pain can be treated by targeted dietary changes in humans.
“Collective results suggest causal mechanisms involving (omega-3) and (omega-6) fatty acids [pain regulation], and open the door to new approaches to treating chronic pain in humans. “
In a linked editorial, Rebecca Burch of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the United States said the results support the recommendation of a high omega-3 diet for patients in clinical practice.
She said the results “bring us one step closer to a goal long sought by headache sufferers and those who care for them: a migraine diet backed by solid clinical trial results.”