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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Headaches and Brain Health

By Michael McBurney

Last week, we reviewed the study by MacIntosh and colleagues who randomized 67 subjects eating a typical high n-6 and low n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid diet (LCPUFA) were randomized to:  1) high n-3/low n-6 or 2) low n-6/average n-3 diets. Statistically significant changes in red blood cell (RBC) fatty acid levels were reported. It turns out the primary aim of the study was to assess the effect of dietary LCPUFA on chronic headaches, measured as the Headache Impact Test (HIT-6).

In a separate paper, Ramsden and colleagues report that increasing n-3 and reducing n-6 fatty acids reduces headache pain and improved quality of life in the 56 (of 67 patients) who completed the intervention. In intention-to-treat analysis, high n-3/low n-6 improved the HIT-6 score (-7.5 vs -2.1; p < 0.001), the number of headache days per month (-8.8 vs -4.0; p < 0.02), and the headache hours per day (-4.6 vs -1.2; p-0.01).

The n-3 LCPUFA docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) makes up 30-40% of the LCPUFAs in gray matter cerebral cortex and 97% of fatty acids in the brain (Lauritzen et al, 2001). The Omega-3 Index has been associated with measures of cognitive performance in stress-related disorders among military personnel.  Emerging evidence suggests a potential role for n-3 fatty acids to enhance repair processes after traumatic brain injury (TBI).

All in all, the evidence linking n-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, with the nourishment and maintenance of healthy brain function continues to grow.


MacIntosh BA, Ramsden CE, Faurot KR, Zamora D, Mangan M, Hibbeln JR. Mann JD. Low-n-6 and low-n-6 plus high-n-3 diets for use in clinical research. 2013 Br J Nutr doi:10.1017/S0007114512005181

Ramsden CE, Faurot KR, Zamora D, Suchindran CH, MacIntosh BA, Gaylord S, Ringel A, Hibbeln JR, Feldstein AE, Mori TA, Barden A, Lynch C, Coble R, Mas E, Palsson O, Barrow DA, Mann JD. Targeted alteration of dietary n-3 and n-6 fatty acids for the treatment of chronic headaches: a randomized trial. 2013 Pain doi:10.1016/j.pain.2013.07.028

Hasadsri L, Wang BH, Lee JV, Erdman JW, Llano DA, Barbey Ak, Wszalek T, Sharrock MF, Wang HJ. Omega-3 fatty acids as putative treatment for traumatic brain injury. 2013 J Neurotrama doi:10.1089/neu.2012.2672