Plant-Based Diets for Migraine

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on April 15, 2024
5 min read

Many foods get the blame for migraine: chocolate, red wine, citrus, and aged cheeses are a few. But experts aren’t yet sure if there’s a connection. Instead of focusing on specific foods, research is now exploring whether big-picture diets can affect how often you get migraine headaches, how long they last, and how painful they are.

According to a small group of studies, diets that focus on low-fat, plant-based foods hold promise for managing migraine. Eating these foods can help reduce inflammation in your body.

Researchers first studied the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) Diet to find out how it benefits brain health and function in people with Alzheimer’s and similar conditions. They found that it helps decrease inflammation and oxidative stress (which is when there are too many harmful molecules called free radicals in your body). Both of these things are linked to brain diseases.

MIND focuses on natural or whole foods, but it is not strictly plant-based. It emphasizes berries and green leafy vegetables, both anti-inflammatory foods high in antioxidants. And it limits animal foods and foods high in saturated fat.

Foods to focus on include:

  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Red and green peppers
  • Legumes, like peas, beans, and peanuts
  • Cucumbers
  • Tomatoes
  • Berries
  • Nuts, including pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds
  • Whole grains
  • Fish and chicken (not fried)
  • Olive oil

Foods to limit include:

  • Butter and other animal fats
  • Cheese
  • Red and processed meats
  • Fast foods
  • Fried foods
  • Refined white sugar- and flour-based foods like cookies and cakes

A study involving 266 women found that the more closely the participants followed MIND, the shorter, tamer, and less frequent their migraines were. The women who stuck with it the best -- eating the most vegetables, legumes, and nuts, and fewest refined grains and overall calories -- were 36% less likely to have severe headaches.

The vitamin E in olive oil, green leafy vegetables, and nuts, as well as the antioxidants in berries, protect the brain from oxidative stress. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish, seeds, and walnuts lower inflammation in the brain.

What’s more, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes are great sources of magnesium. Several studies have shown that people with migraine usually have low brain magnesium levels during attacks and may also have a magnesium deficiency in general.

In another study, scientists looked into whether a low-fat, high-fiber, vegan diet (one that eliminates animal foods) could lower migraine frequency and pain. They found that people who followed a vegan diet had much less migraine pain and intensity, their migraines didn’t last as long as they used to, and they needed less pain medication than before.

What’s more, they lost weight and lowered their cholesterol. They had social and physical benefits, too, like higher energy levels and better emotional well-being.

A healthy vegan diet includes:

  • A variety of fruit and vegetables every day
  • Whole grains (bread, rice, pasta)
  • Dairy alternatives such as plant-based milk
  • Legumes, such as beans and lentils, for protein
  • Unsaturated oils

With a vegan diet, you get antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds from plant foods. You don’t get the inflammatory compounds found in meat or potential triggers in the form of dairy products. It also eliminates sources of the amino acid tyramine, like aged cheese and processed and cured meats. Tyramine triggers migraine attacks for some people.

A low-fat, high-fiber vegan diet also seems to lower estrogen activity, a factor in premenstrual syndrome (PMS). PMS symptoms often include headaches. Weight loss sometimes eases migraine symptoms, so that could be another reason this diet helps.

A note about going vegan: You may fall short on some essential nutrients, such as calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamins B12 and D, if you start a vegan diet without a careful plan to get these nutrients from plant sources. Working with a dietitian will help.

The Low Inflammatory Foods Everyday (LIFE) Diet lowers a blood marker for inflammation called C-reactive protein (CRP) and boosts heart health. Based on dark green, leafy vegetables, this whole-food, plant-based diet also raises your body’s levels of a substance called beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is anti-inflammatory and fights free radicals, which are linked to many diseases.

LIFE may reduce the risk or seriousness of heart disease and other chronic diseases that stem from inflammation. Inflammation is also a migraine trigger.

Dark green, leafy vegetables are at the heart of this diet. The body is good at getting the beta-carotene from these foods:

  • Arugula
  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Collard greens
  • Endive
  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard

The LIFE diet calls for at least 5 ounces of raw or cooked dark green, leafy vegetables every day. It limits whole grains, starchy vegetables like potatoes, oils, and animal protein, especially dairy and red meat.

This diet cuts out many possible migraine triggers along with foods, like red meat, that can be inflammatory. When you limit whole grains and starchy vegetables, you’re likely to lose weight, which can lessen migraine attacks for some people.

Other studies found that you can get some migraine relief through smaller changes.

The Mediterranean diet. This diet includes olive oil as the primary fat source, a focus on fish and poultry over red meat, and lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Besides its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory effects, the Mediterranean diet helps lower high blood pressure, another risk factor for migraine. One study found that the more closely you stick to it, the greater the relief. It can reduce how bad, how long, and how frequent your migraine headaches are.

A higher-quality diet. More whole foods and less junk food in general is a good way to improve your diet. According to one study, the diet quality of people with chronic migraine (15 or more episodes a month) was lower compared to those with episodic migraine (under 15 a month).

One way to boost diet quality is to rebalance the amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids you eat. On average, Americans get too many omega-6s, usually from refined oils in processed foods, in relation to omega-3s. This causes inflammation. Plant-based foods with omega-3s include walnuts, flax, chia, and hemp seeds, and those all-important green leafy vegetables.

Diet diversity. Finally, just having a more diverse diet may help. Research shows that people whose diets have little variety are more likely to have migraine attacks that were worse and longer-lasting than those of people who ate a wide variety of foods.