Do you have inflammation overload? If you have migraine, the likely answer is yes.
When you think of inflammation, you may think of pain, redness, heat and swelling — like what your thumb looks and feels like after you’ve accidentally hit it with a hammer. That kind of acute inflammation is good for you, a sign of the body’s protective immune response. But inflammation can be harmful if it is overdone or chronic and can contribute to migraine.
Fortunately, promising evidence suggests that we can successfully decrease inflammation by eating certain foods that naturally lower inflammation. These foods are known as “anti-inflammatory” for their inflammation-reducing properties.
Sound like magic? Even better: It’s based on science.
How Inflammation Leads to Pain
Let’s take a quick dive into the science behind pain and inflammation.
Inside almost every cell of your body is a special group of protein strings wrapped around each other like a ball of yarn. That protein ball is called “NF-KappaB” (NF-kB). When a threat appears in the body, such as a germ, NF-kB is activated. It travels into the nucleus of its cell and tells that cell to start producing all sorts of inflammatory compounds, including chemokines, cytokines, adhesion molecules, and inflammatory mediators (prostaglandins).
These inflammatory chemicals are for a useful purpose. They cause nearby blood vessels to expand, thus increasing blood flow to the area, beginning the immune system’s response of fighting off the threat and healing any damage. This inflammation causes swelling of the surrounding tissues and activates pain receptors, causing pain.
When Inflammation is Overdone or Turns Chronic
Amazingly, the body activates NF-kB to unleash inflammation not just when it senses germs, but also when it perceives a whole range of “threats,” including:
By the way, if these “threats” seem familiar, it’s because they’re also common sensitivities that can trigger or exacerbate a migraine. This is a reason why a comprehensive approach to migraine is important — so that you can tackle the many causes of migraine at the root.
What happens when the body perceives a “threat” daily — for example, stress, poor sleep, or a diet of processed foods? The inflammatory response can become chronic. It leads to pain, swelling and changes to nerve function, including some common migraine symptoms:
- When inflammatory compounds are generated in the nerves and meninges surrounding the brain, this results in head pain
- Activation of meningeal nerves promotes nausea and vomiting.
The link between inflammation and migraine became even more direct when some studies revealed that people with migraine had a significant elevation in C-reactive protein (CRP) in their blood, a telltale marker of inflammation.
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Taking all this evidence together, we can better understand why reducing inflammation is a strategy for headache and migraine. This is already a common strategy via medicine. For example:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medicines like ibuprofen inhibit the inflammatory compounds set off by NF-kB.
- Various classes of prescription anti-migraine drugs like triptans or CGRP blockers may counteract the action of nitric oxide, another inflammatory product that creates inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.
But there’s yet another anti-inflammatory approach to headache and migraine: by preventing chronic inflammation from happening in the first place. This is the basis of an “anti-inflammatory diet.”
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Eating certain foods reduces our bodies’ production of inflammation. That includes these anti-inflammatory superstars:
- Extra virgin olive oil contains phenols, which prevent pain from being generated via the NF-kB inflammation pathway
- The spice turmeric contains curcumin, a flavonoid compound that inhibits inflammation
- Ginger contains gingerol, a phytochemical that reduces inflammation and supports immune response
- Rosemary, leafy greens like spinach, and brightly colored vegetables all contain a wide variety of anti-inflammatory compounds
- Berries and nuts like almonds contain anti-inflammatory features
- The omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon alters the production of prostaglandin, preventing inflammation
Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of an anti-inflammatory diet for some pain and inflammation-related diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. One striking recent migraine study found that after eating a diet rich in omega-3 fats and low in omega-6 fats for 16 weeks, participants experienced four fewer “headache days” each month compared to the control group. The results prompted one neurologist to note that by contrast, recently-approved migraine medications have shown, at best, a two and a half day reduction in headache days, adding, “The new trial suggests that a dietary intervention can be comparable or better.”
Overall, preliminary evidence from some randomized controlled trials suggest that people with migraine may benefit from a low-fat, low-lipid diet, ketogenic diet, or elimination diet of IgG-positive foods. Nutrition professionals often successfully use anti-inflammatory foods as a cornerstone of dietary support for migraine.
Another benefit of an anti-inflammatory diet is that because it emphasizes unprocessed foods, it promotes weight loss over time — and research increasingly suggests that if you are overweight or obese, weight loss is helpful for reducing migraine frequency and severity.
Altogether, we can recommend a few simple changes to your diet to improve your health with migraine:
- Increase your intake of unprocessed foods that calm inflammation — especially greens, vegetables, berries and other low-glycemic fruits, walnuts and other nuts and seeds.
- Reduce excess sugar and processed foods that lack nutrients, like snack bars, boxed cereals and baked goods.
- Increase fats that reduce inflammation, such as eating wild salmon or cooking with extra virgin olive oil.
Changing your eating habits can be intimidating. Start small by working in a couple of dietary changes that seem right for you and sustainable over time. It might be adding a new food to your diet or subtracting a food from your diet. You may even discover something new you like! Little by little, you’ll find your way to better health. Take it one step at a time.