If you’re one of the millions of Americans or anywhere who suffers from migraines, you know they’re much more than just a headache. The intense throbbing, pulsing, and excruciating pain that accompanies a migraine can be so debilitating that the Migraine Research Foundation (MRF) reports that more than 90 percent of sufferers are unable to work or function normally during an attack. Most people who suffer migraines opt for traditional medications. But many are turning to more natural therapies such as relaxation techniques and herbal remedies.
Cultures worldwide developed herbal remedies for headaches and other common migraine symptoms years before the introduction of modern medicine. Many of these herbal traditions have survived. Although most herbal migraine remedies haven’t been thoroughly scientifically tested for their effectiveness, many herbs are rapidly gaining the support of the modern medical community.
Always exercise caution when considering herbal treatments for migraines. Discuss your decision with a healthcare professional before beginning or stopping any medical or herbal treatment.
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 wide 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:
Feverfew is usually prepared by drying leaves, flowers, and stems. This combination is also used to make supplements and extracts. Some cultures eat the leaves raw.
A very small 2011 study published in the Pharmacognosy Review found that feverfew can help prevent and treat migraines. It found that people who took the herb for up to six months experienced fewer headaches. Their headaches tripled once they started taking the placebo instead. However, a Cochrane review of five larger, more robust trials showed little to no benefit for the majority of migraine sufferers.
Feverfew may cause minor side effects such as bloating, canker sores, and nausea. You may experience moderate side effects when discontinuing use. These can include difficulty sleeping, increased headaches, and joint pain. Pregnant women, those taking blood thinning medications, and those with allergies to members of the daisy family should avoid the use of feverfew altogether.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus)
Butterbur is found in wet, marshy areas of Europe, Asia, and North America. It has been used throughout history for a wide variety of purposes. 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 to treat:
- gastrointestinal problems
- general pain
Most butterbur herbal remedies use its purified root extract Petasites in pill form for the treatment of headaches and migraines. A 2004 study published in Neurology has confirmed conclusions from older studies that Petasites (50 to 75 mg twice daily) is effective for migraine prevention.
Peppermint (Mentha x balsamea)
A cross of spearmint and water mint, peppermint grows throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Peppermint leaves and their essential oils are used for both 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, are available in liquid capsule form. Tea versions are also available for easy brewing. A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice 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.
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 studies show effectiveness independent of salicin content (an anti-inflammatory ingredient of willow bark extract). Willow is a tree found in Europe, Asia, and North America. It has 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.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger is a tropical Asian plant. It 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. Ginger has traditionally been used as a spice and 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 Journal of Phytotherapy Research showed that ginger powder benefits were comparable to sumatriptan, a common migraine prescription, 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.
Caffeine (Coffea arabica) and Black or Green Tea
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 migraine sufferers. The Journal of Headache and Pain found in a 2012 study that a combination of 1,000 mg of paracetamol 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
Valerian is usually taken as a supplement, tea, or tincture made from the dried roots. Liquid extract is also available in capsule form.
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.
Coriander Seed (Coriandrum sativum)
For over 7,000 years, people across cultures have utilized coriander seed’s healing and seasoning properties. 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. 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 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, or medicinal cream for more than 1,000 years. This is especially the case in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean medicinal practices. Modern uses often mix it with other herbs to treat:
- nerve pain
Despite these properties, the root hasn’t been studied deeply enough 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. 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 study published in the European Journal of Neurology found that inhaling lavender oil during a migraine may help calm or conquer some symptoms more quickly. 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
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean region. It has long been used as a culinary seasoning and medicinal herb. Uses include 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.
Lime Tree, 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 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 indicated to have sweat-inducing and sedative properties. It has been used to relieve tension and sinus headaches, calming the mind and inducing 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 on 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.
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. 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
Among honeysuckle’s anti-cancer 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. They may also be effective against migraine pain.
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. 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. Mullein has been shown to have 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 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. 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 migraine sufferers is teaberry’s potential to treat neuralgias and headaches as well as stomach pain and vomiting.
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)
Known as chickweed, 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, and stress and tension. It may help alleviate sinus headaches and congestion when it’s 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.
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 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.
Warning: Take Caution with Herbal Migraine Treatments
Although many herbal remedies can be safe when used correctly, they may also have side effects, just like any prescription medication. Some herbs can interact with other medicines, such as oral contraceptives or heart medications. They can be dangerous or even deadly when misused. Some herbs have little research to back claims, to verify toxicity levels, or identify potential side effects.
Making Sense of Migraine Treatments
In addition to herbal treatments, significant research shows that diet can play a major role in migraine frequency, duration, and intensity. Low-fat diets, eliminating or limiting foods that show IgG antibody production, improving gut flora content, and eating consistently to minimize low blood sugar are potential preventive measures and treatments for migraines.
Just like medications, herbs can have significant side effects on the body. Some can interact with other medicines, and can be dangerous or even deadly when misused. Discuss all treatment options with your doctor before use.
Consider tracking your triggers, symptoms, pain intensity and duration, and other related factors (such as the weather, menstrual cycle, and your activities) 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.