Do Dietary Changes Actually Work?
Designing and carrying out studies on diet interventions for migraines is tricky for a few reasons. For one, it is very hard to assess whether a person actually adheres to a particular diet. Furthermore, there are so many potential migraine-triggering foods that are unique to each person. However, with that being said, one study in “The Journal of Headache and Pain” sought to discover whether a low-fat vegan diet (which naturally eliminates many common migraine food triggers) would reduce migraine attacks.
In this study, 42 participants who suffer from migraines were randomized to one of two groups:
• A change in diet – which consisted of 4 weeks of a low-fat vegan diet followed by 12 weeks of a “common migraine trigger food” elimination diet (in addition to the low-fat vegan option).
• A placebo supplement (very small doses of omega-3 and Vitamin E) with no dietary changes.
During the elimination part of the diet the participants avoided eating common migraine-triggering foods. The participants did eventually slowly reintroduce these foods to their diets, one at a time. The eliminated foods included:
• Nuts and seeds
• Corn, barley, and wheat rye
• Soybeans, chickpeas, peanuts
• All citrus fruits, bananas, and apples
• Sweet potatoes, celery, yam, pepper, eggplant, onion, tomatoes, and garlic
Note: Coffee, tea, and alcohol were also removed from the diet.
There were some problems with the study, mostly limited to diet adherence and the complex design of the study. However, the results were promising as those who changed their diets reported a decrease in migraines. The supplement group, half reported that their headache pain was better, while half reported that there was no change. Furthermore, during the first 16 weeks of the study (when participants adhered most to their diet), those in the diet group had less intense headaches that those from the supplement group.
However, with this being said, there was no significant difference between the number of headaches experienced between the two groups. Also, when reporting improved pain during the dietary period, it is not sure whether that was because of the vegan diet, the elimination diet, or both. All in all, this study emphasizes the difficulties that exist when trying to determine the true benefit of dietary interventions to treat migraines.
Still, the results do suggest some benefits, which is very encouraging.
How Does Food Trigger Migraines?
Food may trigger migraines through an allergic process, in which a person’s immune system is activated and an antibody is produced, or through the food intolerance mechanism, in which no antibody is produced but the body still reacts – this is a sensitivity not an allergy.
In the aforementioned study, a low-fat vegan diet encourages the consumption of plant-based foods, many of which contain anti-inflammatory properties. Foods such as meat and dairy could be pro-inflammatory, so by avoiding them, a person may be able to decrease their migraine pain.
In fact, this inflammatory effect of certain foods has been proven by scientific evidence. One particular study, found in “Cephalalgia” found that some migraineurs have abnormally high levels of IgG (an antibody) in their bloodstream when exposed to certain foods, such as spices, seafood, starch, nuts, and food additives. Therefore, it is possible that particular foods create a pro-inflammatory state in the migraineur’s body, which then lowers the migraine threshold, allowing for other triggers to create a migraine attack.
Of course, there might be some other reasons why elimination or restricted diets help to ease a person’s migraine attacks. For example, elimination diets can lead to weight loss, and calorie reduction (especially in those who are obese) both of which can lead to more intense migraines.
The Bottom Line
While the role of certain foods as migraine triggers is controversial, the truth of the matter is that you should do what makes sense. If a food (or a group of foods) seems to lead to migraines, eliminating it from your diet is sensible, regardless of what scientific research has (or hasn’t) proven. In other words, it’s wise to listen to your gut. Just be careful to change your diet under the guidance of your physician, so that you can ensure you’re getting all the nourishment you need.