Wrapping Your Head Around Migraines
If you’re one of the 36 million Americans who suffers from migraines, you know they are much more significant than just a headache. The intense throbbing, pulsing, and excruciating pain that accompanies a migraine can be so debilitating that more than 90 percent of sufferers are unable to work or function normally during an attack (Migraine Research Foundation, 2013).
About one in five women and one in 10 men in the United States have experienced a migraine or severe headache in the past three months (CDC, 2010), and migraine ranks as one of the top 20 most disabling medical conditions worldwide (Migraine Research Foundation, 2013). A migraine can last up to 72 hours, and the 14 million people that suffer from chronic migraines live in fear of their next attack, knowing that it can happen at any time, without warning.
Even with numerous drugs, lifestyle techniques, and surgical options available to treat and prevent the onset of a migraine, it is estimated that every 10 seconds someone in the United States goes to the emergency room with a migraine or headache due to the excruciating pain, severe nausea or dehydration, drug interactions, or side effects from headache medications (Migraine Research Foundation, 2013).
Finding the right combination of therapies to effectively manage migraines can be time-consuming and extremely difficult. While most migraine patients opt for traditional over-the-counter pain-relievers and prescription medications, many people are turning to more natural therapies such as relaxation techniques and herbal remedies.
A Whole World of Herbal Treatments for Migraines
Humans have been using medicinal plants to treat health-related ailments for thousands of years—and migraines are no exception.
Migraines have long been a health problem, and before the introduction of modern medicine, doctors and patients from cultures worldwide developed herbal remedies for headaches and other common migraine symptoms. Many of these herbal traditions have survived, allowing researchers to collect and test the ancient wisdom in modern clinical trials.
Although most herbal migraine remedies haven’t been thoroughly scientifically tested for their effectiveness, several medicinal plants (such as feverfew) are rapidly gaining the support of the modern medical community as potential treatments (NIH, 2011).
Warning: Take Caution with Herbal Migraine Treatments
Although most herbal remedies are safe when used correctly, just like any prescription medication, taking them can have significant side effects on the body. Some herbs can interact with other medicines, such as oral contraceptives or heart medications, and can be dangerous or even deadly when misused.
Always exercise caution when considering herbal treatments for migraines. Discuss your decision with a health professional before beginning or stopping any medical or herbal treatment.
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
First used in ancient Greece as early as the 5th century B.C., feverfew (also known as featherfew and many other common names) has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments, including fever, swelling, and inflammation of all sorts. In the first century, people commonly took the herb to relieve aches and pains such as headaches—much like we use modern-day aspirin. This usage gave it the moniker “medieval aspirin” (Pareek, Suthar, Rathore, & Bansal, 2011).
Native to the Balkan Mountains, the plant is now found nearly worldwide (NCCAM, 2012). Eastern European cultures traditionally used feverfew for headaches, insect bites, and other pain. More modern uses of feverfew have extended to the treatment of migraines, dizziness, inflammation, and breathing problems.
Feverfew is usually prepared by drying leaves, flowers, and stems as well as using them in supplements and extracts. However, some cultures eat the leaves fresh (NCCAM, 2012).
Although more research is needed, some studies indicate that feverfew can help prevent and treat migraines (Pareek, Suthar, Rathore, & Bansal, 2011). In one study, participants who took the herb for up to six months experienced fewer headaches. Once they started taking the placebo, their headaches tripled.
Feverfew may cause minor side effects such as bloating, canker sores, and nausea. Upon discontinuing use, you may experience moderate side effects such as difficulty sleeping, increased headaches, and joint pain. Pregnant women and those with allergies to members of the daisy family should avoid the use of feverfew altogether. Only start or stop taking this supplement with your doctor’s permission (NCCAM, 2012).
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus)
Found in wet, marshy areas of Europe, Asia, and North America, butterbur has been used throughout history for a wide variety purposes—medicinal and otherwise. People once used the leaves of the plant to wrap and preserve butter during warm weather, which is where butterbur got its name. The Greek physician Dioscurides originally used the plant as a skin ulcer remedy. Since then, it’s been used as treatment for headaches, as well as asthma, allergies, cough, fever, gastrointestinal problems, and general pain (ButterburResearch.org; NCCAM, 2012).
Most butterbur herbal remedies use root extract in a pill form for the treatment of headaches and migraines. In one study, an extract of butterbur called Petadolex was given twice daily in two 25mg capsules for 12 weeks. Compared to a placebo, it effectively reduced the frequency of migraines by up to 60 percent and was well tolerated by those in the intervention group (Grossman & Schmidramsl, 2001). Other clinical studies have also found butterbur to be a safe and effective preventive option for people prone to migraines (Danesch & Rittinghausen, 2003; Lipton, et al., 2004; Oelkers-Ax, et al., 2008).
Peppermint (Mentha x balsamea)
A cross of spearmint and water mint, peppermint grows throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Since it was originally documented as a species in England in 1696, peppermint leaves and their essential oils have been used for both medicinal and culinary purposes (Jones, 1981). In addition to a headache treatment, it has also been employed to relieve spasms, toothaches, gastrointestinal problems, and nausea.
Peppermint oil and its active ingredient, menthol, are available in liquid capsule form. You can also dilute the oils and apply them topically, which is the primary method for migraine treatment. When applied to the forehead and temples in a 10 percent solution, menthol has shown to be effective at stopping migraine pain and easing nausea (Borhani Haghighi, et al., 2010). Although research is limited on its clinical effectiveness, topical peppermint oil may be a good herbal option for the relief of migraine pain.
Willow (Salix spp.)
Willow extract, salicin, was used in the development of aspirin, the well-known over-the-counter pain reliever, fever reducer, and anti-inflammatory drug. Willow is a tree found in Europe, Asia, and North America. It has been used since the time of Hippocrates (400 B.C.), when patients 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.
A small pilot study found that willow extract combined with feverfew significantly reduced the frequency, intensity, and duration of migraines when both taken in 300mg supplements twice daily for a 12-week period (Shrivastava, Pechadre, & John, 2006).
In another small trial, Willow’s salicin extract was also found to relieve pain and reduce migraine duration when used topically (Hyson, 1998). These trials, together with general research on willow bark extract pills and topical ointments, suggest willow may be an effective pain reliever, even for migraines (UMMC, 2010).
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger is a tropical Asian plant, and has been used in herbal medicines in China for over 2,000 years. It has also been popular in Indian and Arabic medicines since ancient times (UMMC, 2010). Traditionally, ginger has been used as a spice and as a remedy for headaches, stomach pain, nausea, arthritis, and cold and flu symptoms.
In the Ayurvedic tradition, ginger has been suggested for use in neurological problems, including headaches (Mustafa & Srivastava, 1990). A small study of an over-the-counter sublingual combination of feverfew and ginger effectively stopped or relieved migraine pain in the majority of participants (Cady, Schreiber, Beach, & Hart, 2005).
While ginger hasn’t been widely tested as an effective treatment for migraines, it has been documented to be an effective anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial (Balick & Lee, 2005). Most people can tolerate fresh or dried ginger root, ginger supplements, or ginger extract. Be careful not to combine it with blood thinners, due to potential drug interactions (UMMC, 2010).
Caffeine (Coffea arabica) and Black or Green Tea
Caffeinated teas became common in China during the Ming Dynasty, and exploded in popularity in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. In combination with other herbs, green tea was used for migraine pain in traditional Chinese medicine (Li et al., 2011). Coffee initially gained recognition in Arabia, and yerba mate, a less widely known caffeinated tea, originated in South America.
People in most cultures primarily drank caffeine to help treat headaches, high blood pressure, stomach problems, sexually transmitted infections, cancers, circulatory problems, inflammation, skin damage, and kidney troubles (NIH, 2011; NIH, 2012). Today, caffeine can be found in many over-the-counter migraine medications (Cleveland Clinic, 2011).
Although caffeine is frequently studied in combination with other pain relievers—particularly a combination of 1,000 mg of paracetamol and 130 mg caffeine—it’s considered a useful and safe additive in pills for many migraine sufferers (Pini, et al., 2012). However, caffeine withdrawal and caffeine intake can also be triggers for headaches and migraines for some individuals (Wober & Wober-Bingol, 2010; Leira & Rodriguez, 1996).
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Valerian is native to Europe and Asia, and is now commonly found in North America. Use of valerian traces back to ancient Greece and Rome from the time of Hippocrates. A few centuries later, it was recognized as a remedy for insomnia. In the 1500s, Valerian was known as “all-heal,” as it was used to treat a multitude of ailments including headaches, heart palpitations, tremors, and anxiety. Valerian later became a popular anti-anxiety herb in England during the time of the World Wars (NCCAM, 2012). It’s usually taken as a supplement, tea, or tincture made from the dried roots. Liquid extract is also available in capsule form (ODS, 2013).
Although it’s sometimes used in the modern treatment of headaches, valerian hasn’t been researched enough to determine its usefulness in the treatment of migraine pain (NIH, 2011). However, its sedative properties can work to relax over-contracted muscles and tension, which is often associated with migraine pain (Chevallier, 2001).
Coriander Seed (Coriandrum sativum)
For over 7,000 years, people across cultures have utilized coriander seed’s healing and seasoning properties. Seeds were discovered in King Tut’s tomb and frequently appeared in recipes for “love potions” in the Middle Ages (Mars, 2007). Coriander was lauded for its ability to successfully treat ailments that ranged from allergies to diabetes to migraines. Traditional Aryuvedic 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 (Nair, Singh, & Gupta, 2012). More studies need to be conducted to better determine if it’s useful as a remedy for migraine pain. However, coriander seed’s anti-inflammatory potential may prove beneficial for some migraines. Coriander seeds can be chewed, used in food or teas, and taken orally in extract form.
Dong Quai (Angelica sinensis)
Hailing from the same family as carrots, parsley, and celery, Dong quai root has been used as a spice, tonic, or medicinal cream for more than 1,000 years in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean medicinal practices (UMMC, 2010). Modern uses often mix it with other herbs to treat headaches, fatigue, inflammation, and nerve pain (Mayo Clinic, 2012).
In a popular formulation of the traditional Chinese medicine, elements similar to Dong quai have demonstrated some painkilling properties that could potentially prevent or reduce inflammation in migraine sufferers (Li et al., 2011). However, the root hasn’t been studied in sufficient depth to recommend it as an effective treatment for migraine pain.
Lavender Oil (Lavandula angustifolia)
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, but is now widely grown throughout Europe, Australia, and North America.
In ancient Egypt, lavender oil was used during the mummification process. Because of its antimicrobial properties and clean scent, it was later added to baths in Rome, Greece, and Persia (NCCAM, 2012). The aromatic flowers and their oil were used to treat everything from headaches and insomnia to mental health complaints such as stress and fatigue (UMMC, 2011). Many of these historical uses remain popular today.
Using lavender oil during a migraine may help calm or conquer some symptoms more quickly (Sasannejad, et al., 2012). Breathe in the oil or apply a diluted solution to the temples. If insufficiently diluted, the oil could irritate the skin at the application site. Lavender oil can be toxic when taken orally at certain doses (NCCAM, 2012).
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary has long been used as a culinary seasoning and medicinal herb. Historical medicinal uses include the treatment of muscle and joint pain, memory and concentration difficulties, nervous disorders, and circulatory problems (UMMC, 2011). More recently, it’s been used as an alternative treatment for migraines and liver ailments (Barney, 1998).
Rosemary oil can be diluted and applied topically or inhaled for aroma therapeutic purposes. The plant’s leaves can be dried and ground for use in capsules, or used fresh or dry for teas, tinctures, and liquid extracts (UMMC, 2011). Rosemary is also believed to have antimicrobial, antispasmodic, and antioxidant effects. However, its ability to reduce migraine pain has not been well studied.
Lime, Linden (Tilia spp.)
Linden, also known as lime tree or Tilia, is a tree whose blossoms were used in medicinal teas in both European and Native American cultures. The plant has been used to 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 (UMMC, 2011).
Linden has been indicated to have sweat-inducing and sedative properties. It has been used to relieve tension and sinus headaches, calming the mind and inducing sleep (Chevellier, 2001). The flowers have also been used to relieve nasal congestion and lower high blood pressure.
In modern alternative medicine, this tea is recommended for infections, swelling and inflammation, and headaches and migraines (Navarra, 2004). Currently, there is not enough research on the effect of linden tea on migraines to recommend it as an effective natural remedy.
Raw Potato Cuttings
For over 200 years, the potato has been used in European folk medicine (Watts, 2007). 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 (Janos, 2004). However, there is no current scientific research suggesting that raw potato cuttings can effectively treat migraines when applied topically.
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)
Native to Europe, horseradish has been used in medicinal folk remedies as an oil extract or in dried or fresh root form for many centuries (NYU, 2012). It has historically been used to treat bladder and kidney infections, respiratory infections, joint pain, arthritis, and muscle strains (NYU, 2012). Its ability to narrow blood vessels may aid in treating migraines; however, 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 infections, wounds, fever, colds, inflammation, sores, viral, and bacterial infections (Chen et al., 2012, Scott, 2008).
Among honeysuckle’s anticancer and antimicrobial powers, research has also identified anti-inflammatory properties in the plant’s leaves, stems, and flowers (Shang et al., 2011) that can provide pain relief similar to that of aspirin, and may be effective against migraine pain (Ryu et al., 2010; Kang et al., 2010). Studies have shown that the plant’s properties are an effective broad spectrum antibiotic; research also indicates the plant’s use as a mild laxative and diuretic, as well as an antioxidant and potential contraceptive (Scott, 2008).
Since ancient times, people in Europe and Asia have been using mullein for medicinal and other practical purposes, from treating inflammatory conditions to spasms, diarrhea, and migraines (Turker & Gurel, 2005). 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 (Georgetown University Medical Center, n.d.).
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Believed to be named after the Greek mythical hero, Achilles, yarrow has historically been used to heal wounds and slow blood loss (Akkol, Koca, Pesin, & Yilmazer, 2011). It was later used in European folk medicine to improve digestion and ease intestinal and menstrual cramps (UMMC, 2011). Other folk remedies encourage the use of yarrow to treat inflammatory conditions, muscle spasms, and anxiety or insomnia (UMMC, 2011). More recent folk remedies have used yarrow to relieve colds, flus, coughs, and diarrhea (National History Museum, n.d.).
Yarrow has also been shown to have pain-relieving, antianxiety, and antimicrobial properties in initial research studies (Radulovic, et al., 2012). Although more research is needed, the plant contains anti-inflammatory properties that may provide relief to migraine sufferers. Yarrow can be used in a wide variety of forms, including capsules and tinctures.
Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens)
Teaberry, popularly known as wintergreen, is native to eastern North America (Missouri Botanical Garden, n.d.). This edible plant, made famous by Teaberry gum, has long held a place in folk medicine for its anti-inflammatory properties (Hoffman, 2003). 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 (Barton, 1817). Most pertinent for migraine sufferers is teaberry’s potential to treat neuralgias and headaches as well as stomach pain and vomiting (William, 2005).
Common Hops (Humulus lupulus)
Native to Europe and western Asia, hops can now be found throughout North America. Once used as a food in ancient Roman culture, this flavorful plant also has significant medicinal properties (Melymuka, n.d.). Hops have historically been used to treat sleep problems, inflammation, infections, neuralgia, fevers, cramps, spasms, and anxiety—among a wide variety of other conditions (Duke, 1983).
Native Americans reportedly heated small bags of hops to place on toothaches, and British aristocracy slept on pillows filled with the seed cones of hops to induce sleep (Duke, 1983). Modern medicine acknowledges the sedative effect of hops, but has not thoroughly studied it for its impact on migraine pain.
Betony (Stachys officinalis)
Known as chickweed, this perennial herb can be found throughout Europe and Asia, and has been used as a medicinal plant since classical times. The plant has traditionally been used to relieve headaches and facial swelling and pain (Chevallier, 2001). 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, as well as stress and tension. When used in combination with lime flowers and comfrey, it has shown effectiveness against sinus headaches and congestion (Chevallier, 2001). However, there have been no human clinical trials performed to demonstrate the plant’s effectiveness against migraine pain.
Betony can have a tonic effect on the body. It’s important to avoid the herb if pregnant.
Evodia (Evodia rutaecarpa)
The deciduous tree is a native to China and has been used in Chinese medicine since the 1st century AD. Traditionally, evodia has been used to treat abdominal pain, headaches, diarrhea, and vomiting. Chinese studies have shown that the fruits of the tree reduce blood pressure (Chevallier, 2001).
Research in Taiwan has found that the extract of the fruit interfere with blood clotting and may be significant in treating stroke (Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2008). Other studies from Japan have found that extracts from the evodia fruit have anti-inflammatory and pain reducing properties that may help ease migraine pain.
Photo Credit: Jerzy Opiola (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Making Sense of Migraine Meds—Herbal or Not
No matter which migraine treatment you choose to use, be patient and proceed with caution. Some medications and herbal remedies take time and require repeated usage to become effective, while others may become less helpful over time. Make all treatment decisions with the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Consider tracking your triggers, symptoms, pain intensity and duration, and other related factors (such as the weather, menstrual cycle, activities, etc.) 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 for you.