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Suffering From Migraines? Cut the Vegetable Oil and Eat This Oil Instead, Study Finds


At first it starts off small — pressure in your head, which turns into a pulsing pain. Then a throbbing sensation builds and spreads until you need to stop what you’re doing, shut the blinds, and climb into bed with a cold compress. Ibuprofen and acetaminophen might take the edge off, but it could take hours for the pain to relent. Chronic migraines, unfortunately, are difficult to treat.

It’s important to remember that migraines are not just headaches. As the JAMA Network reports, they cause severe head pain and other symptoms, including sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and even vomiting. They aren’t rare, either; at least 39 million Americans suffer from them, many of whom never get a proper diagnosis or treatment. And migraines are about three times more common in women than in men. The symptoms are so debilitating that many people don’t find relief from over-the-counter (OTC) medication.

However, treatment methods may be changing for the better. Researchers from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in Baltimore, Maryland have uncovered a link between chronic pain and linoleic acid, an omega 6 fatty acid found in corn oil, soybean oil, and similar vegetable oils. In their study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the researchers found that a diet high in fatty fish oil correlated with fewer migraines.

The Links Between Migraines, Fish Oil, and Vegetable Oil

To begin the study, the researchers recruited 182 participants, 88 percent of whom were women. All volunteers reported suffering from migraines for five to 20 days every month. Also, the volunteers received diagnoses from a board certified headache neurologist. The neurologist confirmed that they met certain criteria for migraines, including: episodes that last for four to 72 hours, pulsing pain, inability to perform physical activity without worsening pain, and other symptoms.

The participants were randomly divided into three different groups based on diet. The first group ate meals that were high in omega-3 oils (from fish) and high in linoleic acid. (Remember: Linoleic acid is an omega 6 fatty acid found in certain vegetable oils.) The second group ate meals that were high in omega 3 oils and low in linoleic acid. Members of the third group (the control group) ate meals that were low in omega 3 oils and high in linoleic acid. The diet of the third group mimicked the average intakes of fish oils and linoleic acid in Americans.

The volunteers continued seeing their regular doctors for migraine care, and they continued using OTC drugs and prescribed medications for migraines or other conditions.

Over the course of 16 weeks, the participants reported their symptoms online in a “headache diary.” (Not a bad idea — if you get severe headaches, keep track of them so you can tell your doctor.) Here’s what the volunteers had to record:

  • How many days were “migraine days”
  • Pain intensity
  • Length of episodes
  • Whether they could function at work or home
  • How often they needed to take pain medication
  • Additional symptoms, such as nausea or sensitivity to light

At the end of the 16 weeks, the researchers analyzed the data.

The Difference Between Eating Fish Oil and Vegetable Oil

When the researchers compared the three groups of participants, they noticed several interesting trends. First, the participants who ate less linoleic acid and more fish oil spent 30 to 40 percent less time with a migraine each day. The severity of migraines also decreased, as did the number of days with a migraine. This was in comparison to the people in the control group (who ate a low fish oil, high linoleic acid diet.)

Why might omega 3s — and a lack of linoleic acid — have helped reduce migraines? As the researchers explain in the study, omega 3 fatty acids and linoleic acid help create oxylipins. Oxylipins sound very fancy, but they are simply molecules that help regulate pain and inflammation in the body.

Oxylipins derived from omega-3 fatty acids tend to help reduce pain, while oxylipins derived from omega 6 fatty acids may worsen pain. So, it makes sense that a diet high in omega 6 fatty acids could potentially contribute to a migraine.

Now, the researchers note that their study had some limitations. Not all the patients stuck to a strict diet. And most of the women in the study were on the younger side (the average age was 38), so these results might not apply to older women. Still, the study offers migraine sufferers some hope.

“Changes in diet could offer some relief for the millions of Americans who suffer from migraine pain,” said Chris Ramsden, a clinical investigator in the NIA and NIAAA intramural research programs, and UNC adjunct faculty member. “It’s further evidence that the foods we eat can influence pain pathways.”

Tweaking Your Diet to Reduce Omega 6 Intake

Should you try and avoid omega 6 fatty acids completely if you have migraines? Not exactly. Omega 6 fatty acids are an essential part of your diet. The body can’t make them, and they are important for metabolism, brain function, skin and hair growth, and bone health. In fact, some omega 6 fatty acids can reduce inflammation.

So, the solution may be to reduce — not eliminate — your consumption of certain vegetable oils, such as soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, and vegetable oil blends (which are high in omega 6s), and to eat more fish.

Just be sure to speak with your doctor before you make any significant dietary changes. And of course, we at First for Women hope you find relief from your migraines.

For more help with migraines, check out these surprising migraine cures and the simple device that may help ease your pain.

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