Eat your way to less brain pain.

More than 1 in 10 Americans—and a shocking 18% of U.S. women—suffer from migraines, reports the Migraine Research Foundation (MRF). And it's often not just a passing thing; most migraine-sufferers experience them at least once or twice per month, and 4 million of the 39 million Americans with migraines have at least 15 migraine days per month, the MRF adds.

A migraine is much more than a common headache. It's an intense throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head, that sometimes can be accompanied by other migraine symptoms such as visual disturbances or "auras," sensitivity to light, touch, smell or sound, numbness in the face or extremities, nausea, dizziness or vomiting. As a result of all of those aches, pains and disruptions to normal functioning, migraines rank among the most common causes of chronic pain, missed work time and lower quality of life.

Woman suffering from a migraine
Credit: Getty Images / LaylaBird

Many individuals with migraines simply rest until it's over or turn to medications to try to ease the aches. But what if we could shift our menu to trigger less migraines in the first place?

Doctors at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), parts of the National Institutes of Health (NIH); and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC) believe this might be possible, so they gathered to research the topic. Their fascinating findings, just released in The BMJ reveal some fascinating—and very doable—diet suggestions to help frequent migraine sufferers reduce the number of monthly headaches and the intensity of the pain. To score all of these migraine-reducing benefits, aim to eat more fatty fish and fewer vegetable-based fats and oils.

"This research found intriguing evidence that dietary changes have potential for improving a very debilitating chronic pain condition such as migraine without the related downsides of often prescribed medications," says Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., Ph.D., the scientific director of NIA, in a brief about the study.

To determine this, the researchers tracked 182 adults with frequent migraines over 16 weeks. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three healthy diet plans and were given meal kits to match their program. All meal plans featured fish, vegetables, hummus, salads and breakfast staples, and then were broken down into:

  1. High levels of fatty fish or oils from fatty fish and low linoleic acid
  2. High levels of fatty fish and high linoleic acid
  3. High linoleic acid and low levels of fatty fish, designed to mimic the average U.S. diet

This difference was inspired by earlier research that hinted at differing levels of chronic inflammation based on variations in linoleic acid intake (found in corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, soybean oil and canola oil, as well as some nuts and seeds) and omega-3 fatty acid intake. (You can score omega-3s in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, oysters and herring, plus these 8 vegan sources.)

During the intervention, the individuals tracked their number of migraine days, plus how long and intense their migraines were, if they needed to take medication, and if the migraines impacted their ability to participate in normal daily tasks at work, school or socially. As a baseline, pre-study, the participants had about 16 headache days each month, 5 hours of migraine pain on those days and noted a severe impact on quality of life and the need for multiple headache meds to tame the pain.

After digesting the data from the 4-month study, the scientists found that those who consumed less vegetable oils and more fatty fish experienced between 30% and 40% fewer total headache hours daily, severe headache hours per day and overall headache days per month, compared to the baseline average U.S. healthy diet group. Blood samples also proved this high-fish, low-vegetable oil group had lower levels of pain-related lipids.

"Changes in diet could offer some relief for the millions of Americans who suffer from migraine pain," says Chris Ramsden, a clinical investigator in the NIA and NIAAA intramural research programs, and a UNC adjunct faculty member who led this research. "It's further evidence that the foods we eat can influence pain pathways."

They note that adjusting diet appears to "show better promise for helping people with migraines" than popping fish oil-based capsules, so it's better to stock up on salmon than supplements.

In the future, the team hopes to dive into how this dietary shift may impact other chronic pain conditions. In the meantime, try these healthy omega-3 recipes and study up on the best and worst foods to eat if you have a migraine.