The correlation between adopting unhealthy dietary habits and migraine severity

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The role of food in altering the clinical features of migraine is often overlooked. A recent Scientific Reports study aimed to study the correlation between migraine severity and adopting unhealthy dietary habits. It also sought to identify specific foods that could trigger particular subtypes of migraine. 

Study: The correlation between the frequent intake of dietary migraine triggers and increased clinical features of migraine (analytical cross-sectional study from Egypt). Image Credit: Ekaterina Markelova/Shutterstock.com
Study: The correlation between the frequent intake of dietary migraine triggers and increased clinical features of migraine (analytical cross-sectional study from Egypt). Image Credit: Ekaterina Markelova/Shutterstock.com

Background

Migraine has challenged medicine over many years and is one of the most common human experiences globally. The global prevalence of migraine is currently 14%, and in Egypt, the one-year prevalence rate is 17.3%. The exact mechanisms governing migraine are unclear, although gastrointestinal disorders have been seen to influence it. 

Some of the factors that drive the association between diet and migraine are gut microbiota, inflammatory mediators, stress hormones, the serotonin pathway, neuropeptides, and nutritional substances. Potential novel therapeutic targets for headache disorders could be developed if we gain a better understanding of the gut-brain-immune (GBI) axis. Food could indeed affect migraine because of the direct connection between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system.

About the study

Dietary patterns of four migraine subtypes were compared, and analysis was conducted to find whether higher consumption of certain foods differed according to aura status and migraine status. Excess consumption was analyzed to see if intake of specific food items increased the intensity, frequency, and duration of migraine attacks. 

The present study also evaluated whether a higher degree of migraine-based disability was caused by adopting bad eating habits. This was a cross-sectional study on 124 adult individuals with migraine between January to June 2020. Pregnant women and patients with memory problems, medication overuse, other neurological diseases, and coexisting tension-type headaches were excluded. The migraine disability assessment scale (MIDAS) was used to assess the severity of migraines.

Study findings

The top dietary triggers of migraine in the study participants were fava beans, falafel, ice cream, processed meats, citrus fruits, chocolates, and aged cheese. Foods such as processed meats, hydrogenated ghee, aged cheese, fried meat, honey, sweets, and fried chicken were associated with chronic migraine (CM). Similar results have been documented in other studies as well. 

Hydrogenated ghee, pickles, and smoked herring were associated with aura symptoms significantly. Other researchers found wine, dairy products, and processed meats to be correlated with the frequency of “migraine with aura”. CM was associated with foods such as fried meat and hydrogenated ghee because of their omega-6 content, which reduces the amount of free fatty acids. The presence of free fatty acids leads to a higher level of serotonin in the blood, which occurs during migraine attacks. 

Episodic migraine (EM) was associated with the consumption of eggs, while CM was seen to be associated with nuts, skimmed cheese, and yogurt. This could be because of food intolerances that lead to migraines with a “brain and gut connection.” This could also be driven by allergic reactions to food antigens, which activate the immune system. The presence of antibodies can lead to cerebral vasodilation and, consequently, migraines.

The frequency, severity, and duration of migraines were associated with the excessive consumption of soft drinks, chocolate, tea, and coffee. Foods that have been associated with CM are those that have a high concentration of biogenic amines such as tyramine, histamine, putrescine, and cadaverine. These are basically food antigens that the immune system attacks with antibodies. In the process, gastrointestinal disturbances happen, leading to triggering migraines through the brain-gut connection. This mechanism was noted in the current study participants as well. 

CM was also noted in participants who consumed refrigerator-stored food for many days. This could be due to the accumulation of biogenic amines in the food, owing to the enzymatic breakdown of tyro-308 sine. However, this theory needs to be further investigated empirically. Higher consumption of smoked herring was seen to be associated with (CM) potentially because of the carcinogenic compound content, such as Benzopyrene.

Conclusions

In sum, this study showed that, compared to EM, people with CM were more likely to have been nursing unhealthy eating habits. Foods that were significantly associated with the development of CM were tea, coffee, soft drinks, full-fat cheese, citrus fruits, fava beans, falafel, aged cheese, processed meats, fried meat, fried chicken, chocolate, canned foods, nuts, pickles, ice cream, smoked herring, sauces, and foods stored in the refrigerator for many days. Margarine, pickles, and smoked herring were seen to be significantly associated with migraine with aura (MA) relative to migraine without aura (MO).

Journal reference:
  • Fayed, AG.I., Emam, H., Abdel-Fattah, A.N. et al. The correlation between the frequent intake of dietary migraine triggers and increased clinical features of migraine (analytical cross-sectional study from Egypt). Sci Rep 14, 4150 (2024). doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-024-54339-8
Dr. Priyom Bose

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Dr. Priyom Bose

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

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