Whether it’s waking up to a pulsing headache or getting hit with a migraine in the middle of a workday, the typical solution is to either power through or break out the painkillers. If you’re tired of buying pills and worrying about potential side effects, you can turn to these natural remedies to alleviate your pain instead.
The stressful situations of modern life aren’t going away anytime soon. That means you need a plan in place to stop headaches when they arise, or better yet, prevent them from occurring in the first place.
You could keep paying for pain medication. But the cost adds up over the years. Suffering through headaches can even have a negative impact on your mood and productivity – something that starts to take a toll on your body.
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8 Natural Headache Remedies
All-natural remedies, on the other hand, have been used for thousands of years. Some of them help prevent headaches from happening while others ease symptoms after the fact. By combining natural treatments, you can put yourself in the best position to avoid pain – and minimize it when it does come.
Best of all, these natural remedies don’t raise concerns about adverse side effects like pain medications do. They’re safe and effective.
Here are eight great ones to get you started:
Magnesium plays a role in over 300 enzyme systems. These systems regulate diverse biochemical reactions ranging from synthesizing protein and controlling blood glucose to maintaining proper muscle and nerve function and a normal heart rhythm (1).
Unfortunately, magnesium deficiency is extremely common, affecting around 48 percent of the United States population (2). Soil depletion (which lowers the magnesium available in crops), digestive disorders that limit absorption of magnesium in the gut, and high rates of antibiotic and prescription medication use all play a part. Magnesium deficiency is especially common among women who suffer from menstrual migraines (3).
Multiple scientific studies have revealed that people who are magnesium deficient are more likely to get headaches (4, 5). The good news: supplementing with between 200 and 600 milligrams of magnesium daily helps reduce migraine frequency (6).
Magnesium works best as a preventive measure, requiring daily supplementation. Magnesium supplements are generally extremely safe. Side effects might include abdominal cramps and/or diarrhea, which you can alleviate by reducing your supplement dose (7).
Besides taking magnesium supplements, you can emphasize eating more magnesium-rich Paleo foods. Those include: broccoli, beets, squash, leafy greens, bananas, seafood, and all kinds of nuts and seeds (8).
2. Essential Oils
Of all the essential oils available, peppermint and lavender oils create a calming effect that makes them great for treating headaches.
Lavender oil is often used in aromatherapy to help you relax or wind down before bed. Research has also confirmed that it is effective in treating migraines. A study published in European Neurology had people suffering from headaches inhale lavender oil and track the effects every half hour. 92 out of 129 participants responded favorably to the lavender oil treatment (9).
Peppermint oil also works well, thanks to its cooling effect on the skin. This oil inhibits muscle contractions and stimulates blood flow to the forehead when applied topically (10).
Several studies from the 1990s (I would love to see more recent research here!) found that topical application of peppermint oil was effective in reducing symptoms of tension headaches, which are characterized by moderate pain and tightness or pressure around your forehead and the back of your forehead or neck (11).
You can inhale essential oils or apply them topically. If you’d like to inhale them, just add two to four drops into a few cups of boiling water and inhale the vapors to ease your headache. To apply topically, just put a few drops on your hands and rub them into your forehead, temples, and the back of your neck.
Tip: One of my favorite ways is to dab a few drops onto my upper lip, just beneath my nose. If you want, you can add some oils into your next bath and really relax.
Herbs taste great and provide a host of health benefits. There are even a few herbs that effectively reduce headache pain – though you might have never heard of them!
The first is the feverfew plant, also known as Tanacetum parthenium. This plant has yellowish-green leaves and yellow flowers. It actually looks a bit like chamomile. People have used feverfew for thousands of years for medicinal purposes (12).
When you get headache pains, blood vessels in your head expand and press on nerves. Feverfew helps relax constricted blood vessels, easing the pressure.
Feverfew is most effective when used as a regular prophylactic. One study found that people who took it had significantly less painful and severe headache symptoms than a placebo group (13). A systematic review of six clinical trials concluded that it was effective in preventing migraines without any major safety issues (14).
The second is butterbur (Petasites hybridus), a perennial from the daisy family found in Europe, Asia, and North America. It’s also been used for centuries as an herbal remedy to treat things like pain, fevers, and allergies.
In a trial conducted in the United States and Germany on 245 migraine patients, those who took butterbur supplements twice daily reduced their headache attacks by 58 percent over a four-month period (15). It seems to work best as a long-term solution, as the peak results were achieved three months into the study.
A Word of Caution About Butterbur: you should never ingest any part of the raw, unprocessed butterbur plant because it contains chemicals linked to liver toxicity (16). Here is one of the few situations where processing is key. Manufacturers remove dangerous chemicals like pyrrolizidine alkaloids, making butterbur safe to consume.
You can find both of these herbs for a reasonable price at your local health food store, vitamin shop, or online.
These anti-inflammatory effects can translate into decreased headache pain, as they help relax constricted blood vessels in the head.
Bonus points: ginger has also been shown to alleviate nausea, so if you’re dealing with a headache so serious that it’s making you feel queasy, ginger can help (17).
One study found that just one-eighth teaspoon of powdered ginger worked just as well as Imitrex (a top-selling anti-migraine drug) without the potential side effects like heartburn and vertigo (18). It also worked just as quickly to ease symptoms.
Another study found that a combination of ginger and the herb feverfew (see above) taken sublingually (beneath the tongue) was safe and effective as a first-line treatment for people who frequently experience mild headaches before moderate to severe ones (19).
You can always use more ginger to season your foods or consider ginger supplements. But the most convenient way to use ginger when those headaches strike is to brew up some ginger tea.
You can buy some ginger tea and keep it on hand, or make your own by slicing up a few quarter-sized slices of raw ginger and simmering them in boiling water. Once it cools down a bit, sip slowly and breathe in the steam. You can even make a paste out of ginger powder and water and apply it directly to your forehead for immediate relief.
6. Cayenne Pepper
Most of us think of cayenne pepper as a tasty spice for our foods, but it’s much more than that. Various cultures around the world have relied on it for centuries for a multitude of health benefits.
Believe it or not, cayenne pepper stimulates blood flow and reduces pain and inflammation. Most of the key benefits come from a compound called capsaicin. Capsaicin depletes substance P, a neuropeptide that acts as one of the main elements in our perception of pain (20).
One of the easiest ways to apply cayenne powder topically is to dilute a tiny amount (around one-quarter teaspoon) into a few ounces of warm water. Use a cotton swab to swirl it around and collect some of the diluted powder, then gently rub it on right outside each nostril until you feel a slight burning sensation. It might be a bit uncomfortable, but it’s a small price to pay to alleviate nasty headache symptoms.
Avoid Your Eyes: If you decide to apply cayenne powder topically, proceed with caution. The last thing you want to do is accidentally rub some of that stuff in your eyes!
If the topical treatment is too uncomfortable, you can also pick up some capsaicin (the active ingredient in cayenne pepper) supplements at your local health food shop or online. These are pretty affordable, so you could take them daily for a preventive effect.
7. Vitamin B2
Vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin, helps your body build red blood cells, converts food to energy, and supports other cellular functions that give you energy (23). It also has an antioxidant effect.
While we can find vitamin B2 in many different foods, it’s usually present in small amounts. If we aren’t careful, we might find ourselves deficient in this key vitamin. Vegans, vegetarians, and others who don’t eat a significant amount of animal protein are especially at risk of developing a deficiency (24).
Supplementing with vitamin B2 can also decrease headache symptoms. A study published in the European Journal of Neurology gave migraine sufferers 400 milligrams of riboflavin capsules daily. After tracking the effects for six months after treatment began, the researchers found that headache frequency decreased significantly, as did reliance on conventional anti-migraine medications (25).
An earlier study found that of 55 patients who took vitamin B2 daily for three months, around 60 percent of them experienced at least a 50 percent reduction in migraine frequency and the number of headache days (26).
Vitamin B2 supplements are inexpensive and easy to find, whether you decide to purchase B2 specifically or a B complex (which might not contain as concentrated a dose of B2 but carries other benefits). Side effects are extremely rare, but can include diarrhea, urine turning a yellow color (as excess B2 is eliminated), or an increase in urine (27).
8. Coenzyme Q10
Coenzyme Q10 (also called CoQ10) is often described as a “pseudovitamin,” or a vitamin-like substance. Like Vitamin B2, it plays an important role in improving energy metabolism.
CoQ10’s similarities to vitamin B2 inspired researchers to explore the possible headache-easing effects. A study published in the journal Neurology of 42 migraine patients found that CoQ10 was more effective than a placebo treatment in reducing migraine attack frequency, headache days, and days with nausea (29). The supplements were also “well-tolerated,” meaning patients were able to take them without experiencing adverse side effects.
Another study found that while COQ10 is effective in treating headache symptoms, it takes some time to experience the benefits. Here, researchers gave 32 migraine headache patients a 150 milligram CoQ10 supplement daily and found that over 61 percent of them reduced their number of migraine days by more than 50 percent without any side effects (30). The results suggest that CoQ10 starts working within four weeks, but it takes longer (between five and 12 weeks) to significantly reduce migraine frequency.
CoQ10 supplements are widely available, but they tend to be more expensive than other more common supplements, like vitamin B2. One option might be to try B2 supplements first and see if you experience any improvement. If you are still struggling, consider making the investment in CoQ10.
Unfortunately, you can’t avoid all the stressful situations that trigger headaches. Things like bad traffic, tight deadlines, and a busy schedule are hallmarks of modern life. But daily activities like meditation and yoga are simple ways to help de-stress after a long day. So whether it’s drinking a warm cup of ginger tea or unwinding with lavender oil, you can take action to stop a headache in its tracks – without resorting to prescription pills.
Do you struggle with headaches or migraines? If so, what’s the best way you’ve found to treat them? Have you tried any of the natural remedies above? Leave a comment and let us know!
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