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Can a Specific Diet Treat Migraine?

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Can a Specific Diet Treat Migraine?

Although migraine is recognized as a largely genetic disorder, certain environmental factors might impact when and how frequently your migraines occur and how severe they may be. One of those factors could be what you eat.

According to Cleveland Clinic, about 20% of people with headaches are thought to be food-sensitive, and it’s been suggested that a number of dietary choices may trigger migraine. Although reports of food and drink triggers are largely anecdotal and require more research, certain food, ingredients, or additives may have some impact on the frequency and intensity of your migraines. 

The American Migraine Foundation notes that people with migraine report their most common migraine food triggers as alcohol and chocolate. Other food products cited as triggering migraine head pain are processed meat, caffeine, aged cheeses, artificial sweeteners, and MSG.

Migraine headaches may be impacted not only by what you eat, but by how much you consume and the timing of it. In the case of some substances, such as caffeine, headache may even be triggered when you stop consumption.

The Gut-Brain Axis

Scientists are studying the gut-brain axis, the communications network between the gastrointestinal system (where food is processed) and the central nervous system. Research shows that consuming certain “inflammatory” foods (such as red meats or refined carbs) may increase the likelihood of inflammation reaching the nervous system and triggering migraine. But so far, evidence is limited, and more research must be done.

Migraine occurs at a higher rate in patients with gastrointestinal disorders, and is perhaps associated with inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease. It’s been proposed that people with migraine might try using probiotics to alter their gut microbiota. 

But how probiotics may affect neurological disorders is not well understood, and probiotic trials have so far yielded mixed results. Also, while probiotics rarely lead to severe side effects, they can cause nausea, constipation, bloating, or diarrhea in some people.

Migraine Diets

So, is there an ultimate “migraine prevention diet,” one that will successfully stop or relieve migraine headache pain?

Unfortunately, there isn’t. No single, special diet has been found that can completely halt the onset of migraines. 

An emerging field in medicine, precision nutrition, seeks to design personalized nutritional solutions that can combat several disorders. These solutions include dietary strategies for migraine, such as elimination, ketogenic, and comprehensive diets. However, these approaches are so far inconsistent and not evidence-driven, and there’s no consensus on which diet might help combat migraine.

Elimination Diet

With this approach, you’d focus on identifying and avoiding any dietary migraine triggers. But, although it sounds simple, finding a link between your migraine and the food you eat can be challenging.

You might try using a daily food diary to track food products and ingredients that seem to trigger your head pain. According to scientific literature, a food item might be considered a trigger if head pain subsequently occurs at least 50% of the time, within a day of consumption.

However, it may be hard to determine whether it’s a food — or one of its ingredients — that is causing your headaches. And of course, your migraine may be due to additional factors as well, such as medication you’re taking, your sleep patterns, skipped meals, dehydration, stress, your menstrual cycle, and changes in weather. 

Anyone undertaking an elimination diet must also be careful not to become undernourished due to decreased intake of critical protein, energy, and micronutrients. Totally avoiding certain food substances can also create stress, poor quality of life, even infection. To attempt a productive elimination diet, consult a physician or dietician who can recommend a food strategy appropriate for you. 

Other Diets

Ketogenic diet and modified Atkins (high-fat/low-carbohydrate) diet have been suggested as potential solutions to migraine. These diets may improve mitochondrial function, compensate for serotonin dysfunction, decrease CGRP levels, and suppress neuroinflammation — all processes which can help relieve migraine.

A high-omega 3/low-omega 6 diet has also been suggested to reduce migraine. The balance between omega 3 and 6 reduces inflammatory responses, enhances platelet functioning, and regulates vascular tone. In a recent study, a diet high in omega 3 fish fats appeared to help reduce the number and impact of headaches, as well as the need for pain medication. 

Both high and low sodium diets have been suggested to help with headaches, but which is best? Evidence is mixed. Sodium intake should always be tailored to the individual. A low-sodium diet is especially important for anyone at risk of vascular complications like hypertension. A high-sodium diet may be more appropriate for people with comorbidities like postural tachycardia syndrome, low blood pressure, or low BMI. Again, the advice of a physician is critical before adjusting sodium in the diet.

A case report indicated that a Low Inflammatory Foods Everyday (LIFE) diet — a nutrient-dense, whole-food, plant-based diet — appeared to eliminate a patient’s chronic migraine within 3 months, with long-lasting results. This is a single case, however, and the LIFE diet is not certain to work for other chronic migraine patients.

Also mentioned in scientific literature as a potential reliever of migraine pain is the Mediterranean diet. This focuses on consuming olive oil, unrefined cereals, beans and other vegetables, fruits, and certain fish, and some studies show that it may result in less frequent or shorter-length migraine headaches. Again, more research is required, however, and this diet may not work for everyone’s head pain.

Epigenetic Diet

According to the CDC, epigenetics is “the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.” With this in mind, an epigenetic diet strategy may eventually hold some hope for people with migraines. 

With this strategy, a person’s diet would be modified and individualized by adding certain dietary compounds that may interfere with or block migraine progression in that person. For example, a folate-rich diet can target DNA methylation, a known factor in migraine onset, and provide potential protection against it. 

According to the CDC, epigenetics is “the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.” With this in mind, an epigenetic diet strategy may eventually hold some hope for people with migraines. 

But much more investigation will be needed to document and provide scientific evidence of the epigenetic diet’s efficacy.

Some Final Thoughts

A literature review of 43 studies on migraine, diet patterns, and diet-related triggers showed low quality of evidence, overall. A complexity of factors might influence migraine, from age, sex, and genetics to other environmental factors. Diet is a component of lifestyle and more than likely associated with factors such as sleep, smoking and exercise. 

Also, if a migraine-preventative diet is being considered, migraine comorbidities and medication must be considered. Certain vitamins or herbal preparations may offer some benefit, but could also interact toxically with other dietary elements or medication. Nutritional deficiencies or excesses caused by the diet may also result in adverse effects, especially if the individual isn’t being monitored by a healthcare professional. 

Remember: If you want to try dietary changes to help relieve your episodic or chronic migraine, it’s essential to first consult your physician or dietician. 

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  7. National Institute of Aging. Consuming a diet with more fish fats, less vegetable oils can reduce migraine headaches. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/consuming-diet-more-fish-fats-less-vegetable-oils-can-reduce-migraine-headaches
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  11. CDC. What is Epigenetics? https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/epigenetics.htm
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Updated on
October 5, 2022
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