Here’s Why the Heart-Healthy Mediterranean Diet Can Help Mitigate Migraine Attacks, According to Experts

Photo: Getty Images/Alexander Spatari
You might not realize it based on the way the average American eats, but the Mediterranean diet has been a thing since the 1950s. Long touted for heart health, it's been decades since this way of eating first caught the attention of researchers, who noticed that people living along the Mediterranean Sea Basin tended to have less heart disease and lived longer than people in the U.S.

Based on new, emerging research, we're learning that Mediterranean diet aficionados may also suffer from fewer migraines. The pain, throbbing, and nausea caused by migraines can range from mild to soul-crushing. Triggers vary between people, but for many, food seems to play a role.

Experts In This Article

A 2023 study published in Nutritional Neuroscience found that adherence to the Mediterranean diet reduced the frequency, intensity, and duration of migraine headaches. If you're tempted to start stocking up on salmon, veggies, extra virgin olive oil, and whole grain foods, read on to find out what the link is, and why this way of eating can be helpful.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

Proponents of the Mediterranean diet liken it more to a lifestyle than an eating plan. It’s easy to follow and doesn’t require calorie counting, carb counting, or complete abstinence from any type of food. So far, so good.

These are the basics of the Mediterranean diet, as outlined by the International Food Information Council:

  • Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and extra-virgin olive oil are eaten at most meals
  • Nuts, seeds, and low-fat dairy are eaten daily, but not at every meal
  • Fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, legumes, and potatoes are eaten a few times weekly
  • Sugary foods and drinks, processed meats, and red meat are eaten sparingly

To get the most benefits, advocates of this dietary plan emphasize the need to get daily doses of physical activity and relaxation. Both reduce stress, a common migraine trigger.

How does the Mediterranean diet help with migraines?

The new migraine study analyzed the dietary habits of 262 migraine patients aged 20 to 50 years old. Researchers used a food frequency questionnaire to determine what people were eating.

“Those with the strongest adherence to Mediterranean diet patterns had the best scores for lower headache frequency, severity, and duration. They significantly consumed higher amounts of vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish, whole grains, nuts, good fats, dietary fiber, and magnesium, compared with those in the lowest category,” says Shae Datta, MD, the director of cognitive neurology at NYU Langone Hospital, Long Island.

These foods clearly have benefits for heart health. But how do they help with migraines?

According to Sean Ormond, MD, a dual board-certified physician in anesthesiology and interventional pain management at Atlas Pain Specialists in Phoenix, multiple mechanisms are at play. “The Mediterranean diet is rich in anti-inflammatory foods that contain antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. Since neurogenic inflammation has been linked to migraine headaches, an anti-inflammatory diet may help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines,” he says.

Dr. Ormond also notes that the high antioxidant content of the Mediterranean diet helps reduce oxidative stress, which has been implicated in migraine pathophysiology.

In addition, he stresses that this way of eating can also improve blood vessel function. Migraine pain may be triggered, in part, by brain cells that release chemicals that narrow blood vessels, causing pain. The healthy fats found in olive oil, nuts, and fish like salmon may reduce this impact. Eating less sugar, a common migraine trigger, may also help.

And then there’s magnesium, which is abundant in green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Dr. Datta frequently recommends this supplement to her patients with migraine pain. She explains that magnesium works by blocking N-Methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, the primary excitatory neurotransmitters found in the human brain. Magnesium may also relax blood vessels and alleviate vascular spasms. These mechanisms may all play a crucial role in the prevention of migraines.

Both Dr. Datta and Dr. Ormond stress that eliminating unhealthy foods is as important for migraine relief as eating healthy ones. While the study didn’t outline the foods participants omitted, Dr. Datta suggests it might be assumed that individuals with this healthy eating pattern also had the lowest intake of known migraine triggers, including processed meat, hot dogs, ham, fatty food, and fried foods.

Tempted to try it?

When it comes to health, the Mediterranean diet really has no downside. It consistently gets high marks for improving gut health, brain health, heart health, and more. If you have migraines or even plain old headaches, this dietary eating plan is certainly worth a try. It’s also a good idea to chart your symptoms, so you can better identify your triggers, from weather to food. And don't neglect the other must-dos for migraine relief: getting enough sleep, gentle self-care, and exercise.

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