For people with migraine, or anyone dealing with chronic pain, finding ways to mitigate the symptoms can become a lifelong battle. And while there’s no one-size-fits-all for pain management, a new study published in the BMJ found that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the frequency and severity of headaches for adults with migraine. Here’s how it works, and how you can get more of the nutrient in your diet.
How omega-3s help manage pain.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids fall under the category of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), which produce molecules called oxylipins. According to the study, several oxylipins derived from omega-6 fatty acids have pain-promoting properties, whereas several oxylipins derived from omega-3s have potent pain-reducing properties.
To determine whether these pain-reducing properties could help mitigate headaches for people with migraine, researchers looked at 182 participants who experienced migraine headaches anywhere between five and 20 days per month. The participants were randomly assigned one of three diets for 16 weeks.
The control diet (meant to mimic the average American diet) contained typical levels of omega-3s and omega-6 fatty acids; another raised omega-3 intake without altering omega-6s; the final diet raised omega-3s and lowered omega-6s.
Over the course of the 16 weeks, participants documented headache frequency and how the headaches affected their quality of life. At the end of the trial, the two groups that raised their omega-3 intake reported significantly lower headache frequency (two to four headaches per month, respectively). When they did experience headaches, they were shorter and less severe compared to the control group.
“While the diets did not significantly improve quality of life, they produced large, robust reductions in frequency and severity of headaches relative to the control diet,” the study authors write. “This study provides a biologically plausible demonstration that pain can be treated through targeted dietary alterations in humans.”
How to get more omega-3s in your diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in a wide range of foods (many of which you probably already eat!); here are just a few to add to your grocery haul: