Increasing Omega-3 Intake Could Reduce Migraine Pain

Key Takeaways

  • Recent research suggests lowering your omega-6 fatty acids and increasing omega-3s could lower migraine frequency and pain severity.
  • Omega-6s are found in fried foods and some types of oils; you need a certain level in your diet, but many Americans get too much.
  • Diet should be used in conjunction with other migraine management strategies, including healthy habits around sleep, exercise, and stress.

Although migraines can have several triggers, diet may be a significant factor, particularly the type of fat you’re eating, according to a study published in The BMJ.

Researchers looked at 182 people diagnosed with frequent migraines and split them into three groups for 16 weeks. One was a typical U.S. diet with an average amount of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, while a second group increased its omega-3s and maintained usual omega-6 levels. The third group ate meals that were significantly lower in omega-6s and much higher in omega-3s.

The standard group didn’t see much change, but as the omega-3s increased, the incidence of pain went down in the other groups. The one with the least omega-6s saw the biggest improvement.

The Problem With Omega-6s

Another recent study also highlighted the role of omega-6s and pain. Published in Nature Metabolism, the research looked at people with diabetic neuropathy, a type of nerve damage caused by uncontrolled high blood sugar. That damage often affects nerves in the legs and feet the most and can be painful and debilitating.

Although that study was modest, with only 28 participants, it found those who ate the highest levels of omega-6 fatty acids tended to have higher pain levels, a finding similar to the migraine research.

Ilan Danan, MD

Lifestyle factors, like diet, can play a major role in migraines and other problems.

— Ilan Danan, MD

Found primarily in oils like canola, safflower, sunflower, and soybean, omega-6s are considered a source of polyunsaturated fats and can have some benefits—as long as they’re consumed in the correct ratio to the healthier omega-3 oils. Research has noted that a good ratio would be 1-to-1, but Western diets that are heavily reliant on these oils for options like processed foods are usually about 20-to-1.

A ratio like that can significantly increase inflammation, which can be a driver for migraine pain as well as many other issues in the body, according to Ilan Danan, MD, pain management specialist at the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.

“Lifestyle factors, like diet, can play a major role in migraines and other problems,” he says. “That can get worse if you keep eating foods that are problematic because it doesn’t allow the inflammation to go down. It’s like pouring gasoline on fire.”

Ilan Danan, MD

That can get worse if you keep eating foods that are problematic because it doesn’t allow the inflammation to go down. It’s like pouring gasoline on fire.

— Ilan Danan, MD

That doesn’t mean you need to eliminate omega-6s, but emphasizing more omega-3s instead could get that ratio in better balance. That means increasing foods such as:

  • Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel
  • Cod liver oil
  • Flax seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Fortified orange juice

Migraine Management

In addition to shifting toward increased consumption of omega-3s, many other lifestyle tweaks can help with migraines, says Danan. Those include:

  • Focus on stress relief tactics like mindfulness meditation or deep breathing
  • Regular exercise to keep blood sugar controlled
  • Healthy sleep habits including a regular bedtime and wake time
  • Stay hydrated, since dehydration can make migraines worse
  • Reduce or eliminate caffeine or alcohol if they tend to cause migraines
  • Recognizing triggers such as bright light, strong smells, or weather changes

These can be done in addition to the medication that may be recommended. Adopting these habits may not knock out migraines completely, since some chronic migraines have a genetic or hormonal component. But they could help reduce the severity of pain or the frequency of migraines.

Even with lifestyle changes in place, check with your doctor and talk about treatment strategies that may be effective, suggests Medhat Mikhael, MD, pain management specialist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.

Mikhael emphasizes that migraine management is often a long-term, ongoing effort that requires staying on top of triggers. Also, schedule an appointment if you start to experience other symptoms, such as numbness in the face, arm weakness, or more intense symptoms, he says.

What This Means For You

Increasing your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids can help provide a better ratio with omega-6s, and result in less risk of migraine pain and other issues.

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