A throbbing pain or pulsing sensation begins on one side of your head. You might feel nauseated and even vomit. Any noise or bright light feels like an assault on your sanity, so you end up hiding in your bedroom with the blinds drawn.

You have a migraine. Again.

Migraines are more common than you might think. More than a fifth of women and nearly 11 percent of men in the United States have repeat attacks of severe headaches (Burch et al., 2020).  If you have migraine, you are twice as likely to also have back pain (Vivekanantham et al., 2019). Most people can’t work during a migraine, which can last an afternoon or up to three days.

Migraines seem to have genetic origins, but there are ways you can cut the frequency and intensity of your attacks. One key factor is diet. Eating fish rich in omega-3s may help, new research suggests (Ramsden et al., 2021, Mann et al., 2017).

What the researchers did

Human beings evolved eating fish, not processed foods coated with or full of seed oil. Readers of Vital Choice have heard about extensive science that the dietary ratio between omega-6 fats, abundant in seed oils, and omega-3 fats, abundant in fish and shellfish, affects our health. That’s exactly what the new migraine research found.

It came from a large team, including scientists from the National Institutes of Health and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a group that has been studying the connection between pain and dietary fat for years.

Trigeminal nerve anatomy
The trigeminal nerve is often intimately involved in migraine pain.

In earlier work, the team found that linoleic acid, the omega-6 polyunsaturated fat rife in processed food, inflamed tissues and pathways in the trigeminal nerve, which controls jaw movements and sensation across the face and skull (Mann et al., 2017).

Yes, right where migraines hit.

The researchers decided to test whether altering a person’s omega-3 to omega-6 ratio through diet could soothe the pain-related inflammation.

They recruited 182 patients who had suffered from migraines for a least two years and randomly assigned them to one of three diet plans. During the study, they continued their medications.

All received meal kits that included fish, vegetables, hummus, salads, and breakfast items. One lucky group received meals that had high levels of fatty fish or oils from fatty fish and less linoleic acid.

A second group received meals that had high levels of fatty fish and higher linoleic acid.

The third, control, group received meals with high linoleic acid and lower levels of fatty fish—closer to a typical U.S. intake. 

Over 16 weeks, the volunteers recorded how many days they had migraines, how long the pain lasted, its intensity and how it affected their functioning, and how often they needed to take painkillers.

When the study began, this group was enduring headaches on more than 16 days a month, on average, with each lasting more than five hours, on average. That’s half a workday for half of the month. As you can imagine, the pain was interfering with their lives, though they were typically using many different medications.

What happened? People who were getting meals lowest in vegetable oil and higher in fatty fish cut those headache hours by 30 or 40 percent, compared to the control group. Their blood samples also showed lower levels of pain-related fats. The diet did not have any side-effects, unlike pain medications, which can make you sleepy or cause addiction. The second group, which ate more fatty fish than the control group but more linoleic acid than the first one, saw a milder benefit.

“Changes in diet could offer some relief for the millions of Americans who suffer from migraine pain,” said Chris Ramsden, a co-leader of the study. “It’s further evidence that the foods we eat can influence pain pathways." (Eureka Alert, 2021).

(One way to determine if you are getting enough omega-3 fatty acid in your diet is with an Omega-3 Index Home Test Kit.)

Finetuning your diet

People treated for migraine are advised to identify and avoid foods that trigger their pain. Common triggers include red wine, beer, chocolate, aged cheese, cured meats, and smoked fish (American Migraine Foundation, 2021).

I live with a condition marked by excess histamine—that’s the same histamine we fight with everyday anti-histamine medication. Histamine causes standard allergy reactions like sneezing and itchy eyes and plugged-up or drippy noses. What you may not know is that histamine accumulates in food, especially red wine, beer, chocolate, aged cheese, cured meats, and smoked fish. Hmmn.

Vital Choice frozen sockeye salmon filet
Pouched, frozen fish fillets, like this wild Alaskan sockeye salmon, are excellent choices for those with histamine-driven headaches.

As it turns out, there is a long history of science connecting histamine and headache. You may have heard of “red wine” headaches. In the 1920s and 1930s, researchers learned that giving someone histamine could induce a headache, but that people varied. Later evidence connected the release of histamine from specific allergy cells to migraine. However, current anti-histamines don’t seem to help (Worm et al., 2019, Theoharides, 2005)

If you have a histamine problem, you will be advised to stay away from those high-histamine foods. You’ll also be advised to make sure your meat and fish is frozen. Histamine accumulates in food over time as it interacts with bacteria. I buy my meat and fish frozen. I don’t even defrost my food in a refrigerator. I put it frozen into a convection oven, though a quick thaw immersing pouched seafood in warm water would also work.

Beth O’Hara, a naturopath who studies histamine issues, recommends salmon frozen on the boat and grass-fed meat that was frozen after slaughter (Wells, 2020). Vital Choice fish is typically frozen on the boat or quickly after it is caught, leading to a variety of benefits including better quality and freshness, less waste and an overall lower carbon footprint (A fresh look at frozen fish, 2017).

So while avoiding your triggers you might consider minimizing histamine in your meat and fish. Upping your omega-3 consumption is good for your health for any number of reasons. This new research confirms the importance of cutting your seed oil consumption as well. Deep-fried food, chips, crackers, even granola, contain corn, soybean and cottonseed oils.

If you can save yourself time in pain, I bet you won’t miss those chips at all. Have another sockeye salmon fillet instead!

 

Sources:

  • A fresh look at frozen fish - home - ecotrust. (2017) https://ecotrust.org/media/Fresh-Look-at-Frozen-Fish_executive_summary-1.pdf. 
  • American Migraine Foundation. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/migraine-and-diet/ Accessed July 21, 2021.
  • Burch, R., Rizzoli, P., & Loder, E. (2021). The prevalence and impact of migraine and severe headache in the United States: Updated age, sex, and socioeconomic-specific estimates from government health surveys. Headache61(1), 60–68. https://doi.org/10.1111/head.14024  E-published December 21, 2020.
  • Eureka Alert. University of North Carolina Healthcare. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-07/uonc-cco070221.php   Published July 2, 2021.
  • Mann, J. D., Faurot, K. R., MacIntosh, B., Palsson, O. S., Suchindran, C. M., Gaylord, S. A., Lynch, C., Johnston, A., Maiden, K., Barrow, D. A., Hibbeln, J. R., & Ramsden, C. E. A sixteen-week three-armed, randomized, controlled trial investigating clinical and biochemical effects of targeted alterations in dietary linoleic acid and n-3 EPA+DHA in adults with episodic migraine: Study protocol. Prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and essential fatty acids128, 41–52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plefa.2017.11.002   Published November 16, 2017. 
  • Ramsden CE, Zamora D, Faurot KR, et al. Dietary alteration of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids for headache reduction in adults with migraine: randomized controlled trial. BMJ. https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n1448 E-published July 1, 2021. 
  • Theoharides, T. C., Donelan, J., Kandere-Grzybowska, K., & Konstantinidou, A. (2005). The role of mast cells in migraine pathophysiology. Brain research. Brain research reviews,  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainresrev.2004.11.006 Published July, 2005.
  • Wells K. Understanding Mast Cell Activation and Histamine Intolerance With Dr. Beth O’Hara. https://wellnessmama.com/podcast/beth-ohara/ Published December 28, 2020.
  • Worm, J., Falkenberg, K. & Olesen, J. Histamine and migraine revisited: mechanisms and possible drug targets. J Headache Pain 20  https://doi.org/10.1186/s10194-019-0984-1 Published March 25, 2019.
  • Vivekanantham, A., Edwin, C., Pincus, T. et al. The association between headache and low back pain: a systematic review. J Headache Pain 20, 82. https://doi.org/10.1186/s10194-019-1031-y   Published July 15, 2019.