Can a Mediterranean Diet or Low-Fat Diet Prevent Your Headaches?

Opt for fish and vegetables and/or avoid whole fat dairy

falafel and pita
How the Mediterranen Diet May Help Prevent Headaches. Ellie Baygulov/Stocksy United

Food is a known headache and migraine trigger, but which foods specifically trigger a person's head pain is unique and sometimes difficult to figure out.

Sometimes a single food triggers a person's headaches, like red wine or chocolate. For others, it is the perfect storm that sets off their head pain, like a meal filled with many "trigger" foods, combined with a poor night sleep.

Certainly, if you have one or more specific food triggers, avoiding them is your best bet.

That being said, some people cannot always identify their triggers and prefer to adopt a diet that will simply optimize their headache or migraine health.

While there is no universal diet that works for everyone, some people have found that a certain diet, like the Mediterranean or low-fat diet, reduces their headaches or migraines—and what better way to take back some control of your condition than by controlling what you eat.

Mediterranean Diet for Preventing Chronic Daily Headaches 

The Mediterranean diet—one that is low in meat content and rich in fatty fish—tends to be high in Omega-3 and low in Omega-6 fatty acids.

Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids make up a large part of the membrane of both immune and nerve cells. They are believed to be the precursors of molecules involved in regulating pain and psychological distress in the body.

More specifically, Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in foods like fatty fish, legumes, nuts, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, are believed to reduce both inflammation and pain perception.

On the other hand, Omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in red meats and vegetable oils like linoleic acid (LA), are believed to promote inflammation and increase pain perception.

Headache experts theorize that not only would a diet rich in Omega-3 help prevent chronic headaches and migraines (so far, the scientific studies have been conflicting), but rather a diet that is both high in Omega-3 fatty acids and low in Omega-6 fatty acids would do the trick—the perfect ratio.

A 2015 study in The Journal of Pain sought to test this theory. In this 12-week study, fifty-five participants with chronic daily headache were randomized to either:

  • a diet high in Omega-3 and low in Omega-6 (like a Mediterranean diet)

or

  • a diet low in Omega-6

Results found that those assigned to the high Omega-3, low Omega-6 diet had a greater decrease in the number of headaches per month. These participants also had a lower HIT-6 score by the end of the study, meaning their headaches had less impact on their quality of life, as compared to those on the low Omega-6 diet.

In the same study, blood levels of Omega-3 metabolites were measured at the beginning of the study, and at the end of the study. Results found that compared to the low Omega-6 diet, those on the combined high Omega-3 diet/low Omega-6 diet had higher levels of DHA-EA, which is known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Also, this rise in DHA-EA correlated with a reduction in physical pain and psychological distress of the participants.

What Does This Mean?

While more and larger studies are needed to examine the role of an Omega-3 rich diet combined with an Omega-6 poor diet in headache and migraine prevention, adopting such a diet may be an option for some.

The good news about adopting a Mediterranean diet is that it has other health benefits, like helping prevent heart disease—a double bonus.

Low Fat Diet for Preventing Migraines

Another option that may be helpful for those who endure migraines, either episodic or chronic migraines, is the low-fat diet.

In a 2015 study in Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases, 83 participants with either episodic or chronic migraines were randomized to undergo either a low or normal fat diet for three months. Then the participants crossed over to the opposite diet for another three months.

The low-fat diet restricted fats to less than 20 percent of total daily energy intake whereas the normal fat diet had a fat content of 25 to 30 percent of total daily energy intake.

All in all, the low-fat diet had lower amounts of saturated fats (for example, butter, cheese, whole milk, and red meat) and monounsaturated fats (for example, olive oil and canola oil).

Results of the study found that those undergoing the low-fat diet had less severe and less frequent migraine attacks than those undergoing the normal fat diet.

It is important to note that the participants who underwent the diet changes lost weight—so weight loss (regardless of how it was done) may have contributed to some of the reduction in the number of migraines in this study.

In fact, research has consistently found that people with obesity have more frequent and more severe migraines than those of a normal weight. Obesity may also mediate the transformation from episodic to chronic migraine.

The science behind the link between obesity and migraines is likely complex but may be mediated by inflammation, as obese people have a higher level of inflammatory markers in their bloodstream. These same inflammatory markers are elevated during a migraine attack.

What Does This Mean?

A low-fat diet, particularly one that is low in saturated fats may be beneficial to those in preventing migraines. A diet low in saturated fats generally means cutting back significantly on meat (for example, beef, lamb, pork) and dairy products (for example, butter, cheese, whole-fat yogurt and milk).

If you opt for a low-fat diet, focus your food consumption on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish—fatty fish like salmon are especially rich in polyunsaturated fats (the good kinds of fat). Choose low-fat dairy products over whole fat and eliminate trans fats from your diet, which are the fats found in snack and fried foods.

The good news is that in June 2015, the United States Food and Drug Administration determined that trans fats could not be recognized as safe. A three-year time limit was set for all food companies to remove trans fats from processed foods.

A Word From Verywell

Before adopting any specific diet for your headache or migraine health, be sure to check in with your personal doctor.

Choosing the right diet can be a complex task, as  you want to ensure you are not neglecting vital nutrients or causing more stress to your body. For instance, if you are cutting back significantly on dairy products, you want to be sure you are getting enough calcium in your diet. A quick lesson on other sources of dietary calcium (like kale, spinach, broccoli, or fortified cereals) is all you need.

That being said, these diets, especially the low fat and Mediterranean, are fairly standard and safe ways of eating. So it may be worth a try.

Sources:

Ferrara LA et al. Low-lipid diet reduces frequency and severity of acute migraine attacks. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2015 Apr;25(4):370-5.

Martin VT, Vij B. Diet and Headache: Part 2. Headache. 2016 Oct;56(9):1553-62.

Ramsden CE et al. Diet-induced changes in n-3 and n-6 derived endocannabinoids and reductions in headache pain and psychological distress. J Pain. 2015 Aug;16(8):707-16. 

University of Maryland Medical Center. (8/2015). Omega-6 Fatty Acids

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