Changing consumption of certain fatty acids could lessen severity of headaches

Elle Hughes/Pexels

A change in diet based on certain classes of fatty acids decreased migraine headaches in patients over a 16-week period, according to new research published in the journal The BMJ.

The classes of polyunsaturated fatty acids examined in this study are omega-6 (n-6) and omega-3 (n-3). Both have important functions within our body, but need to be in balance, as n-3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease inflammation and some derivatives of n-6 have been shown to promote pain. However, due to the amount of processed food consumed today, most people in the United States are eating substantially more n-6 and fewer n-3 fatty acids.

To see whether the amount of these fatty acids in a person's diet could impact pain from headaches, 182 patients currently diagnosed with and seeking treatment for migraines were enrolled in this randomized, controlled trial, led by Doug Mann, MD, professor of Neurology and Internal Medicine in the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine.

In addition to their current treatments, patients adhered to one of three diets for 16 weeks: a control diet that maintained the average amount of n-6 and n-3 fatty acids that a person living in the U.S. consumes, a diet that increased n-3 and maintained n-6 fatty acids, and a diet that increased n-3 and decreased n-6 fatty acids. Participants were provided with 2/3 of their daily food requirements, and were also given an electronic diary to record how many hours each day they had headache pain.

Participants reported fewer days a month with headaches, and some were able to decrease the amount of medication they needed for their pain. However, participants did not report a change in quality of life.

"I think this modification in diet could be impactful," said Daisy Zamora, PhD, co-first author and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine, in a statement. "The effect we saw for the reduction of headaches is similar to what we see with some medications. The caveat is that even though participants did report fewer headaches, some people did not change their perception of how headaches affected them."

The study specifically tested n-3 fatty acids from fish and not from dietary supplements, and therefore do not apply to supplement use. Zamora said the biochemical hypothesis of how certain fatty acids affect pain applies to a wide variety of chronic pain. The researchers are currently working on a new study to test diet modification in other pain syndromes.