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An anti-migraine diet

What you eat- and don't eat- can help stave off debilitating headaches

Christy Nielson, 49, remembers getting her first migraine when she was in third grade. She curled up in the back of the school bus with excruciating pain, not able to find the words to tell her parents what it felt like when she got home. When she hit puberty, the migraines got worse. By her early 20s, she assumed that severe headaches were an unavoidable part of her life. It wasn’t until years later that she finally found a cure—in her kitchen.

Migraine is a neurological disease that has a number of symptoms, including moderate-to-severe throbbing head pain that can last for anywhere from four hours to several days. According to the World Health Organization, roughly one billion people around the world experience these headaches. While migraines can occur partly because of genetic factors, attacks may happen seemingly at random, set off by something in the environment.

“Everyone’s brain works slightly differently, but we know in general triggers can cause a hyperexcitability to the cortex of the brain,” says Danielle Wilhour, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Around one billion people are reported to suffer from migraines

One common trigger is food, and some common dietary triggers include alcohol, salt, sugar, chocolate, and caffeine. But there are many others, and scientists continue to identify more. In 2021, for instance, a Brazilian study looked at some common fruits and vegetables to see their impact on headaches. They found that watermelons were the most common migraine trigger among the produce they studied, bringing on a headache within minutes in about 30 percent of the study participants.

Another little-known trigger is gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and some other grains. Gluten in foods such as bread, crackers, pasta, and seasoning mixes may cause digestion woes (and be dangerous for people with celiac disease), but for some, headaches can also be a symptom of gluten sensitivity.

"New research is looking at which foods can prevent or minimize migraines"

Wheat turned out to be one of the culprits for Christy Nielson. When prescription drugs began to fail her, Nielson turned to alternative medicine. She visited Nicola McFadzean Ducharme, a naturopathic doctor in San Diego, California, who listened to her symptoms and tested her for possible allergies. While awaiting the results, the doctor put Nielson on an elimination diet, restricting her food intake to fruit, vegetables, and meat.

“The first weeks of the diet were very difficult,” Nielson recalls. “But on day 13 it was as though a veil had lifted. The headaches were gone.” The test results revealed that Nielson had a severe sensitivity to eggs and wheat, which had always been part of her diet. Today, Nielson says her migraines are gone for good.

Foods That Heal

Some of the newest research isn’t looking at what foods can trigger a migraine, but which foods and what kinds of diets can prevent or minimize them.

A study published in 2021 by a team of researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that a diet higher in fish oils rather than vegetable oils helped people suffering from frequent migraines to reduce the number of occurrences and the intensity of their headaches.

"After only a few months, Kamka's migraines had practically disappeared"

In the study, those on a diet lower in vegetable oil (linoleic/omega-6fatty acids) and higher in fatty fish (omega-3 fatty acids) had a 30 to 40 percent reduction in total headache hours per day, severe headache hours per day, and overall headache days per month compared to the control group.

For some study participants, the improvement was dramatic. Tanya Kamka had suffered weekly migraines for most of her life. Then, in her 50s, she joined the NIH diet trial and increased her intake of fish. The benefits were striking. After only a few months, her migraines had practically disappeared. She maintained the dietary changes after the study ended.“I haven’t had a migraine, not even a mild one, in over two years,” she says.

There are some foods which are reported to trigger migraines and others which appear to minimize or even prevent them

For others, relief comes from plants, not fish. Last year the British Medical Journal published a report from a team of New York-based doctors about a patient who had experienced remarkable relief from migraines after switching to a plant-based diet. The 60-year-old man had suffered from migraines without much relief for a dozen years. He’d already tried eliminating food triggers. Then he joined a study on the food-migraine link and switched to a diet called LIFE (Low Inflammatory Foods Everyday), which includes a lot of dark, leafy greens like kale and spinach, as well as blueberries and flaxseed.

"People with migraines react to food in very different ways, what works for one person may not work for another"

After two months the man reported he was experiencing only one migraine a month instead of the 18 to 24 a month he’d suffered previously. He has been migraine-free now for several years. The doctors believe that the diet may help by both eliminating triggers and increasing levels of phytonutrients, which are found in plants.

Other individuals with migraines have found relief by following ketogenic diets, low-fat diets, or low-glycemic diets. Clearly, since the food components of these plans differ dramatically—ketogenic diets, for example, are high in fat—and people with migraines react to food in very different ways, what works for one person may not work for another.

Be a Food Detective

If you suspect that food may be contributing to your migraines, there are several steps you can take. The National Headache Foundation in the U.S. recommends keeping a log of the foods you have eaten, the time you ate, and when your headache symptoms occurred. After identifying your trigger foods, see if eliminating them from your diet reduces or stops your headaches.

However, be careful about dropping too many foods from your diet without consulting a medical professional. Elimination diets can lead to malnutrition if not done carefully.

Alternately, consider adding fish oil to your diet or trying to eat more plant-based foods. You can also experiment with different diets to see if overhauling your eating habits will banish your migraines for good.

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