Diet may affect migraines for a variety of reasons, and a group of Washington, D.C. researchers recently found that a low-fat, plant-based diet may be beneficial to people living with migraine disease.

The researchers, generally affiliated with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), randomly selected 42 migraineurs, who either received a placebo supplement for 16 weeks or ate a vegan diet (a diet with no animal products) for the same time period. A several-week phase was included in which the subjects eliminated common dietary triggers. After a 4-week period of no treatment, the groups switched to the other treatment modality.

The vegan diet was associated with significant reductions in pain, with patients reporting a decrease of more than 2 points on a 10-point scale, compared to less than 1 point for those taking supplements. Researchers also found significant changes in body weight and cholesterol levels during the diet phase. However, the patients reported smaller changes in the number of headache days compared to previous studies in which migraineurs eliminated foods that elicited IgG antibodies, which are associated with food intolerance.

The authors concluded there is potential value in nutritional approaches to migraine treatment and offered several reasons for the positive results, including: a vegan diet excludes several common migraine triggers; meat products contain inflammatory properties, so eliminating meat may have an anti-inflammatory effect; weight loss sometimes improves migraine; and plant-based diets may have an effect on hormones, such as estrogen, which is involved with migraine.

They recommend further pain studies to evaluate dietary triggers and to confirm the usefulness of the vegan diet as compared to alternative therapeutic diets. They also recommend a longer trial, and if possible, distinguishing the effects of a vegan diet from a food-elimination diet.

NHF President Dr. Arthur Elkind made the same suggestion.

“Eliminating dietary triggers may be easier for some individuals than a vegan diet, and it would be important to determine which diets, if any, have a real effect on migraine frequency,” he said.

The research was led by Anne E. Bunner of the PCRM and was published in the Journal of Headache and Pain.