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Man had migraines nearly every day for 12 years — until he tried this plant-based diet

Switching to a diet rich in dark leafy greens helped one man drastically reduce his migraine attacks.
Dark leafy greens, like spinach and kale, may help manage migraine symptoms.
Dark leafy greens, like spinach and kale, may help manage migraine symptoms.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

As anyone with a migraine will tell you, the condition can be life-altering. But finding a treatment plan that works can be just as monumental. And for one man who dealt with migraine attacks for over a decade, the key was adopting a plant-based diet rich in certain nutrients.

The man's story, published today in BMJ Case Reports, is a dramatic one. At 60, the patient had previously experienced migraine headaches for more than 12 years. And, in the months before his consultation with the study authors, his migraine attacks became chronic. By then, he had tried some conventional treatments for his migraines, including medications (such as zolmitriptan and topiramate) as well as more traditional dietary modifications aimed at removing potential migraine triggers (like chocolate, cheese and caffeine).

After consulting with the study authors, the patient adopted the low inflammatory foods everyday diet. The LIFE diet involves drinking a daily 32-ounce smoothie (made from banana, dark leafy greens, frozen berries and soy milk) as well as adding more nutrient-dense plant-based foods throughout the day. Foods like these are thought to help reduce — or at least not contribute to — chronic inflammation in the body. The LIFE diet also requires limiting consumption of dairy, red meat, whole grains, starchy vegetables, and oils.

Within a few months of adopting the LIFE diet, the patient's results were significant. When he first started, the patient reported having experiencing six to eight "debilitating" headache attacks every month. Each attack lasted up to 72 hours, which added up to between 18 and 24 headache days each month. Within two months, the patient reported only experiencing one headache day per month. And after three months, he no longer experienced migraine attacks — an effect that's lasted for more than seven years so far, according to the study.

If you're experiencing migraine attacks, experts say dietary changes like this could help.

"I think this (case report) is a tremendous start," study author Dr. David Dunaief, an integrative medicine specialist based in New York, told TODAY. "This is kind of revolutionary to have the ability to say, 'Not only does it work, but it works in the worst-case scenarios. And it works in a short period of time.'"

The change in migraine frequency this patient experienced is, indeed, "rather impressive," especially considering how long the effect has lasted, Dr. Charles Flippen, professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told TODAY.

But because it's a case study with only one patient, it's difficult to know whether or not others would see the same results. "This is a very dramatic case in a sample of just one person," Dawn Buse, clinical professor in the department of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, told TODAY in an email. "While it is valuable to learn from this person’s experience, a large sample is necessary to draw conclusions about the benefits of diet change on migraine or chronic migraine."

And this particular person, who also has HIV and is on daily antiviral medication, is "not an average patient," Flippen said. While undergoing this dietary change, the patient learned that they are sensitive to some food triggers — egg whites, salmon, iced tea — they hadn't been aware of previously, which could also have contributed to their results.

But, Buse said, there have been some recent studies suggesting that major dietary changes can reduce migraine symptoms. For instance, in a randomized controlled trial published in the The BMJ in July, participants with migraine who switched to a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in omega-6 fats saw a reduction in their headache frequency and severity.

Dunaief said it's the LIFE diet's potential ability to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the body that's likely responsible for its success in reducing migraine attacks. (In the case study, however, the authors measured inflammation by monitoring the level of C-reactive protein in the patient's blood, which was already low, Dunaief explained. So in this specific instance, inflammation wasn't likely to be a culprit.)

Even though we don't know the exact mechanism for migraine, the concept of an inflammatory process as part of the underlying physiology of chronic pain has been around for decades, Flippen explained. "So the idea that you have a diet that reduces the production of pro-inflammatory substances would fit nicely with our current understanding of migraine ... It's not purely magic that it worked."

Still, this patient's example is particularly striking and more dramatic than what's been seen in other studies so far, Buse said. "Having a larger study will help answer the question of truly how sustainable the benefits of this type of intervention are," Flippen said. "But I think the dramatic result does indicate that it merits further investigation."

Should you try something like the LIFE diet to manage migraine attacks?

Lifestyle modifications, including prioritizing nutrition (and figuring out and avoiding triggers), regular exercise and quality sleep, are often a crucial part of managing migraine disease, Flippen said. And for many people, changing those factors is preferable to taking medications. So it's understandable that a patient might want to try something like the LIFE diet.

Adding more nutrient-rich whole foods like dark leafy greens to your meals is generally a good idea with few potential downsides, according to both Flippen and Dunaief. But it's also a good idea to chat with your health care provider before embarking on a major dietary change like this — especially if you're on migraine medication right now or you have certain other health conditions.

One reason for that is to be able to accurately monitor your progress in terms of both nutrient levels and how frequently you need to use medication, Dunaief said.

But also there are a few specific instances in which a diet like this could be a little riskier. People who take certain blood thinning medications should be careful, Flippen said, because this type of diet may interfere with the way the drugs work. And those who have inflammatory bowel disease may find it difficult to digest so many high-fiber fruits and vegetables, he added. Dunaief also said he takes special care with people who have heart or cholesterol issues and makes sure those are under control before implementing this diet. If you're interested in trying this out, talk to your doctor to see if it might make sense for you.