Herbal remedies for migraines
If you’re one of the millions of Americans who experience migraines, you know they’re much more than just a headache. The intense throbbing, pulsing, and excruciating pain that accompany a migraine can be debilitating. In fact, more than 90 percent of people who get migraines can’t work or function normally during an episode, the Migraine Research Foundation reports.
Most people who experience migraines opt for medication. But many are turning to natural therapies such as relaxation techniques and herbal remedies.
Years before the introduction of modern medicine, cultures worldwide developed herbal remedies for headaches and other common migraine symptoms. Many of these herbal traditions have survived the passage of time. Although most herbal migraine remedies haven’t been thoroughly scientifically tested for their effectiveness, many are rapidly gaining the support of the modern medical community.
Always use caution when considering herbal treatments for migraines. Discuss your decision with a healthcare professional before beginning or stopping any medical or herbal treatment. Many herbs interfere with other medications.
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
First used in ancient Greece in as early as the fifth century B.C., feverfew (or “featherfew”) has been used to treat a variety of ailments. These include fever, swelling, and inflammation. People commonly took the herb to relieve aches and pains such as headaches in the first century.
The plant is native to the Balkan Mountains but can now be found nearly worldwide. Eastern European cultures traditionally used feverfew for headaches, insect bites, and other pain. More modern uses have extended to the treatment of:
- breathing problems
Feverfew is usually prepared by drying the leaves, flowers, and stems. This combination is also used to make supplements and extracts. Some cultures eat the leaves raw.
A 2011 review suggests that feverfew is an effective treatment for migraines, fever, the common cold, and arthritis. However, a CochraneTrusted Source review of five large clinical trials showed little to no benefit for the majority of people who experience migraines.
Feverfew may cause minor side effects such as bloating, canker sores, and nausea. You may also experience moderate side effects when discontinuing use. These side effects can include difficulty sleeping, increased headaches, and joint pain.
Pregnant women, people taking blood thinning medications, and people with allergies to the daisy family should avoid the use of feverfew.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus)
Butterbur is found in wet, marshy areas of Europe, Asia, and North America. People once used the leaves of the plant to wrap and preserve butter during warm weather, which is how butterbur got its name. It’s been used throughout history for a variety of purposes. The Greek physician Dioscurides originally used the plant as a skin ulcer remedy. Since then, it’s been used to treat:
- gastrointestinal problems
- general pain
Most butterbur herbal remedies use its purified root extract, Petasites, in pill form to treat headaches and migraines. A 2012 study published in NeurologyTrusted Source supports conclusions from older studies that Petasites is effective for migraine prevention when taken as 50- to 75-milligram doses twice daily.
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A cross of spearmint and water mint, peppermint grows throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Peppermint leaves and their essential oils are used for medicinal and culinary purposes. In addition to a headache treatment, it’s also used to relieve:
- gastrointestinal problems
Peppermint oil and its active ingredient, menthol, is available in liquid capsule form. Tea versions are also available for easy brewing.
A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Clinical PracticeTrusted Source found that menthol was effective at stopping migraine pain and easing nausea when applied to the forehead and temples in a 10 percent solution.
Research is limited on its clinical effectiveness, but topical peppermint oil may be a good herbal option for the relief of migraine pain. Peppermint oil is one of the easiest herbal remedies to try because of its prevalence in health food stores and pharmacies.
Willow (Salix spp.)
Willow bark extract (WBE) was used in the development of aspirin, a well-known over-the-counter pain reliever, fever reducer, and anti-inflammatory drug. WBE contains an anti-inflammatory ingredient called salicin. A 2012 studyTrusted Source suggests WBE is also an effective antioxidant.
Willow is a tree found in Europe, Asia, and North America. It’s been used since the time of Hippocrates (400 B.C.), when people would chew the bark for its anti-inflammatory and fever-relieving effects. Willow was later used in China and Europe for headaches, osteoarthritis, tendonitis, and lower back pain.
Willow bark can be found in capsule form and as a chewable bark at most health food stores.
Ginger is a tropical Asian plant. It’s been used in herbal medicines in China for over 2,000 years. It’s also been popular in Indian and Arabic medicines since ancient times. Ginger has traditionally been used as a remedy for:
- stomach pain
- cold and flu symptoms
- neurological problems
Ginger has been well-documented as anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial. In addition, a 2014 study published in the Phytotherapy ResearchTrusted Source showed that ginger powder’s benefits were comparable to sumatriptan’s, a common prescription migraine drug, but with fewer side effects.
Most people can tolerate fresh or dried ginger root, supplements, or extract. Be careful not to combine ginger supplements with blood thinners because of potential drug interactions.
Ginger capsules and ginger tea are both relatively easy to obtain in almost any grocery store or pharmacy. You can also try drinking ginger water.
Caffeinated teas became common in China during the Ming Dynasty. They exploded in popularity in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Green tea was used in combination with other herbs for migraine pain in traditional Chinese medicine. Coffee initially gained recognition in Arabia. Yerba mate, a less widely known caffeinated tea, originated in South America.
People in many cultures primarily consumed caffeine to help treat:
- high blood pressure
- stomach problems
- sexually transmitted diseases
- circulatory problems
- skin damage
- kidney disease
Caffeine is also found in many over-the-counter pain relievers today.
Although caffeine is frequently studied in combination with other pain relievers, it’s considered a useful and safe additive in pills for many people who experience migraines. A 2012 studyTrusted Source found that a combination of 1,000 milligrams (mg) of acetaminophen and 130 mg of caffeine is particularly helpful. However, caffeine withdrawal and caffeine intake can also be triggers for headaches and migraines.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Valerian is native to Europe and Asia. It’s now also commonly found in North America. Use of valerian traces back to ancient Greece and Rome from the time of Hippocrates. It was recognized as a remedy for insomnia a few centuries later. Valerian was known as “all-heal” in the 1500s, as it was used to treat a multitude of ailments. These included:
- heart palpitations
It’s sometimes used in the modern treatment of headaches, but valerian hasn’t been researched enough to determine its usefulness in the treatment of migraine pain.
Valerian is usually taken as a supplement, tea, or tincture made from the dried roots. Liquid extract is also available in capsule form. Valerian root capsules are widely sold in the United States.
Coriander seed (Coriandrum sativum)
For over 7,000 years, people across cultures have used coriander seed’s healing and seasoning properties. Coriander was lauded for its ability to treat ailments that ranged from allergies to diabetes to migraines. Traditional Ayurvedic medicine used coriander to relieve sinus pressure and headaches by pouring hot water over the fresh seeds and inhaling the steam.
Research on the seed’s medicinal effects is generally focused on its potential to treat arthritis and diabetes. More studies need to be conducted to determine if it’s useful as a remedy for migraine pain. However, coriander seed’s anti-inflammatory potential may prove beneficial for some people with migraines.
Coriander seeds can be chewed and used in food or teas. Oral extracts are also available.
Dong quai (Angelica sinensis)
Hailing from the same family as carrots, parsley, and celery, dong quai root has been used as a spice, tonic, and medicinal cream for more than 1,000 years, especially in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean practices. Modern uses often mix it with other herbs to treat:
- nerve pain
Despite its history, the root hasn’t been studied enough to recommend it as an effective treatment for migraine pain.
Known for its sweet smell, lavender oil (made from the flowers of the lavender plant) is highly fragrant and has long been used to perfume hygiene products. Lavender is indigenous to the mountainous regions surrounding the Mediterranean. It’s now widely grown throughout Europe, Australia, and North America.
Lavender oil was used in ancient Egypt during the mummification process. Because of its antimicrobial properties and clean scent, it was later added to baths in Rome, Greece, and Persia. The aromatic flowers and their oil were used to treat everything from headaches and insomnia to mental health complaints such as stress and fatigue. Many of these historical uses remain popular today.
A 2012 studyTrusted Source suggests that inhaling lavender oil during a migraine may help relieve symptoms quickly. To use lavender oil, breathe in the oil or apply a diluted solution to the temples. If you don’t dilute it properly, the oil may irritate the skin at the application site. Lavender oil can be toxic when taken orally at certain doses.
Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean region. Medicinal uses have included the treatment of:
- muscle and joint pain
- memory problems
- concentration difficulties
- nervous disorders
- circulatory problems
- liver ailments
Rosemary oil can be diluted and applied topically or inhaled for aromatherapeutic purposes. The plant’s leaves can be dried and ground for use in capsules. It can also be used in teas, tinctures, and liquid extracts. Rosemary is believed to have antimicrobial, antispasmodic, and antioxidant effects. Still, its ability to reduce migraine pain hasn’t been well studied.
Linden, lime tree (Tilia spp.)
Linden, also known as lime tree or Tilia, is a tree whose blossoms have been used in medicinal teas in European and Native American cultures. The plant has been used to calm nerves and ease anxiety, tension, and inflammatory problems, among other issues. The blossoms can also be used in tinctures, liquid extracts, and capsules.
Linden has been shown to have sweat-inducing and sedative properties. It’s been used to relieve tension and sinus headaches, calm the mind, and induce sleep. The flowers have also been used to relieve nasal congestion and lower high blood pressure.
This tea is sometimes used in modern alternative medicine for the treatment of headaches and migraines. There currently isn’t enough research about the effect of linden tea on migraines to recommend it as an effective natural remedy.
Raw potato cuttings
The potato has been used in European folk medicine for over 200 years. Country folk medicine has anecdotally supported the use of thick slices of raw potato in calming migraine pain. Traditionally, the slices are cloaked in a thin cloth and wrapped around the head or rubbed directly on the temples to ease tension and pain. There is no current scientific research suggesting that raw potato cuttings can effectively treat migraines when applied topically.
Native to Europe, horseradish has been used in medicinal folk remedies as an oil extract or in dried or fresh root form. It has historically been used to treat:
- bladder infections
- kidney disease
- respiratory problems
- joint pain
- muscle strains
Its ability to narrow blood vessels may aid in treating migraines, but no clinical trials support the use of horseradish for migraines.
Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
Native to Asia, the Japanese honeysuckle started taking root in North America in the 1800s. It’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat:
- colds and viruses
Along with honeysuckle’s anticancer and antimicrobial powers, research has also identified anti-inflammatory properties in the plant’s leaves, stems, and flowers that can provide pain relief similar to that of aspirin. It may also be effective against migraine pain.
Since ancient times, people in Europe and Asia have been using mullein for medicinal purposes, treating inflammatory conditions, spasms, diarrhea, and migraines. The leaves and flowers can be used for extracts, capsules, poultices, and dried preparations. Tinctures of the plant are used in modern homeopathic therapies for migraine treatment. ResearchTrusted Source has shown that mullein has diuretic properties.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Believed to be named after Achilles, the Greek mythical hero, yarrow has historically been used to heal wounds and slow blood loss. Other folk remedies encourage the use of yarrow to treat inflammatory conditions, muscle spasms, and anxiety or insomnia. More recent folk remedies have used yarrow to relieve colds, flus, coughs, and diarrhea.
Yarrow has also been shown to have pain-relieving, anti-anxiety, and antimicrobial properties. Although more research is needed, the plant contains anti-inflammatory properties that may provide relief to people who experience migraines. Yarrow can be used in a variety of forms, including capsules and tinctures.
Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens)
Teaberry, popularly known as wintergreen, is native to eastern North America. This edible plant, made famous by Teaberry gum, has long held a place in folk medicine for its anti-inflammatory properties. It can be used to make teas, tinctures, and oil extracts.
Teaberry also has been used historically as an astringent and as a stimulant to fight fatigue. Most important for people who experience migraines is teaberry’s potential to treat neuralgias and headaches as well as stomach pain and vomiting.
You can brew teaberry in hot water for 3 to 4 minutes and drink the mixture to experience its healing effects.
Common hops (Humulus lupulus)
Hops are native to Europe and western Asia and can now be found throughout North America. Once used as a food in ancient Roman culture, this flavorful plant also has significant medicinal properties. Hops have historically been used to treat:
- sleep problems
- neuralgia (pain from nerve damage)
Modern medicine acknowledges the sedative effect of hops, but hasn’t thoroughly studied it for its impact on migraine pain.
Betony (Stachys officinalis)
This perennial herb can be found throughout Europe and Asia. It’s been used as a medicinal plant since classical times. The plant has traditionally been used to relieve headaches and facial swelling and pain. The leaves can be used as a juice, poultice, or ointment.
The mildly sedative properties of the plant are used to treat headache and migraine pain, menstrual cramps, stress, and tension. It may help alleviate sinus headaches and congestion when used in combination with lime flowers and comfrey.
However, there have been no human clinical trials performed to demonstrate the plant’s effectiveness against migraine pain. It’s not always easy to find betony in health food stores, so you may have to grow your own or buy it online.
Betony can have a tonic effect on the body. It’s important to avoid the herb if you’re pregnant.
Evodia (Evodia rutaecarpa)
This deciduous tree is a native to China and has been used in Chinese medicine since the first century A.D. Evodia has traditionally been used to treat abdominal pain, headaches, diarrhea, and vomiting. The fruits of the tree may also reduce blood pressure. The anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing properties of the fruit may help ease migraine pain.
Warnings and potential complications
Although many herbal remedies can be safe when used correctly, they may also have side effects like any prescription medication would. Some herbs can interact with medications, such as oral contraceptives or heart drugs. Herbs can be dangerous or even deadly when misused. Some have little research to back claims, verify toxicity levels, or identify potential side effects.
Migraine without aura
This is the most common kind of migraine headache. It builds over several hours before the pain of your migraine peaks, usually lasting up to 72 hours. People who have these kinds of migraines tend to experience them a few times per year. If they occur more often than that, the condition may be diagnosed as chronic migraine.
Migraine with aura
Some people experience disturbances of the nervous system, called aura, during their migraines. Auras can include bright spots in the field of vision, tingling sensations, vision loss, hallucinated odors, and uncontrolled movements.
Retinal migraines involve vision loss in one eye. Unlike migraines with aura, the visual disturbances are usually contained to that eye.
Chronic migraine is defined as having migraines that occur on more than 15 days per month for 3 months or more. This frequency can be debilitating. Medical evaluation is required to obtain a treatment plan and to identify if something else is causing the migraines to occur so often.
Certain behaviors, emotions, hormones, and foods can trigger a migraine. Caffeine or chemical withdrawal can cause migraines, for example. Chocolate, food dyes and additives, preservatives, aspartame, and cured meats are the most common dietary triggers for migraines, according to the American Nutrition Association. Food allergies and sensitivities can also activate migraines as a symptom.
A high-stress, competitive lifestyle can sometimes lead to recurrent migraines. Emotional stress from chemicals released during emotional situations can provoke a migraine. Hormones are also a notorious migraine trigger. For women, the menstrual cycle is often connected to when their migraines occur. You may want to consider if there are migraine patterns or triggers that you can identify before you decide to try an herbal treatment.
In addition to herbal treatments, significant research shows that diet can play a major role in migraine frequency, duration, and intensity. Potential preventive measures and treatments for migraines include:
- eating a low-fat diet
- eliminating or limiting foods that show IgG antibody production
- improving gut flora content
- eating consistently to minimize low blood sugar
Consider tracking your triggers, symptoms, pain intensity and duration, and other related factors in a migraine journal or migraine app. Whether you choose pharmaceutical treatments, natural remedies, or a combination, having a thorough record of your experiences will help you and your doctor narrow down the best treatment options.
If you know how to use them, herbs can provide far more than just a sprinkling of flavour. Following centuries old traditions, natural remedies can help alleviate the pain of bumps and bruises as well as headaches and migraines, meaning you may not have to reach straight for the pill packet when you begin to feel unwell.
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Why? The fresh Italian herb is said to have an analgesic effect, helping stimulate the body’s natural processes and relieving pain.
How to use: Add 3 or 4 fresh basil leaves to a cup of boiling water and allow it to simmer. Once simmered, sip the tea slowly. Alternatively you could chew some fresh basil leaves (this also helps freshen breath) or inhale the steam after boiling the basil in a pot.
Why? Not just for cats, catnip acts as a mild sedative. A member of the mint family, it’s another alternative natural migraine remedy. The plant acts as a mild sedative and has been employed in traditional herbology for centuries. It also has anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce stress and anxiety (which are often the source of migraines).
How to use: The flowering head can be taken in tea form. To make catnip tea, place 1-2 tsp of dried catnip flowers into a cup and pour over hot (not boiling) water. Wait 10-15 minutes and sweeten with a little honey or lemon to mitigate the woody taste.
Why? A mild sedative with relaxing qualities, a cup of chamomile tea can soothe your sorrows and alleviate stress induced headaches. Chamomile tea can also act as an anti-inflammatory and help to reduce muscle spasms.
How to use: To make a simple relaxing chamomile tea, add two tea spoons of chamomile for every cup of water and simmer for 5 minutes, for a sweeter taste, add honey.
Why? Not only is it fabulous in a G&T, this refreshing her is excellent for a variety of ailments including migraines and colds. Mint tea contains antioxidants which help reduce headache pain.
How to use: To make mint tea, bring water to a gentle boil, pour over mint leaves and keep covered for 10 minutes, strain the leaves, pour into your favourite cup and relax.
Why? Even just smelling lavender is said to have a sedative, calming effect. The fresh flowers contain medical compounds that are anti-spasmodic, helping relax the blood vessels and the small muscles around the scalp and eyes.
How to use: For lavender infusion, use 15 to 30g of dried lavender flowers per litre of water. Adults can also inhale essential oil for quick relief.
Why? Rosemary is known for its positive effect on the mind but has also been found to significantly reduce pain.
How to use: The herb can be applied in oil form directly to your temples to ease headaches or migraines. Alternatively, vapour can be inhaled, or it can be used in tea. For rosemary tea allow the water to reach boiling point, pour over the herbs and allow to steep for 10-15 minutes.
Why? Aztec tribes would use fennel to cure headaches, so this root has true ancient backing. It’s also known to help ease digestion.
How to take: Fennel tea can be made with either seeds or fresh stalks. For fresh leaf tea, pour one cup of boiling water over the leaves and allow to steep for 15-20 minutes, once steeped remove the leaves then top up with more hot water.
Why? Whether from the white, European or purple tree, willow bark is a well known natural substitute for aspirin and can be used to ease pain from headaches to menstrual craps and arthritis to sore muscles. This is because salicin, an active ingredient within the bark, is similar to aspirin and offers similar effects.
How to use: The ancient greeks would chew on the bark to relieve pain, but we advise you save your teeth and make tea instead. To make willow tea, use ground bark, adding two tea spoons for every 230ml of water. Allow to simmer on the stove for around 10 minutes then remove. Let it steep for another 30 minutes, straining the bark from the liquid using a coffee filter or fine mesh strainer.
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