Ask the Doctor: Herbs for Headaches

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Photo by CGissemann
Dab peppermint essential oil at the temples to help ease a headache.

Q. I get headaches from time to time, and am wondering if herbal remedies could help me?

A. There are several herbs we can rely on to relieve a common headache or for natural migraine relief, the use of which stretches back to ancient civilizations.

Heal-Your-Headache Massage Oil recipe 

Herbs for Headaches

According to Pliny, during times of the pharaohs, herbalists added chicory juice to rose oil and vinegar to treat headaches. Herb expert Steven Foster says that Native Americans used various willow bark remedies to heal headaches. The Chickasaw used a root decoction and the Montagnais poulticed the leaves on the forehead to relieve headaches. Modern medicine has its own spin on a willow bark remedy: Aspirin was developed due to research on compounds found in willow. In fact, white willow bark (Salix alba) is one of the oldest home analgesics, dating back to 500 B.C. in China. Modern research confirms old-time wisdom, showing it helps back, osteoarthritic and nerve pain. Willow bark contains the compounds apigenin, salicin and salicylic acid, which provide anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antineuralgic actions. (See our Herbal Remedies for Headaches chart for more information.)

Make Willow Bark Tea

If you have access to white willow and wish to make your own, collect bark from a twig (never the main trunk). Use about 2 teaspoons bark to 1 cup water, boil, simmer for 10 minutes and cool slightly. Because salicin concentration is low and widely variable in willow bark, you may need several cups to obtain the equivalent of two standard aspirin tablets. A word of caution: Willow should not be given to children, due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome (a deadly disease that can damage vital organs like the brain and liver), nor used by individuals with aspirin allergies, bleeding disorders, or liver or kidney disease. Willow may interact adversely with blood-thinning medications and other anti-inflammatory drugs. Additionally, willow tends not to irritate the stomach in the short term, but long-term use can be problematic.

Peppermint Oil for Headaches

In addition to willow bark, peppermint (Mentha ×piperita) essential oil applied to the temples can help ease a headache. Compounds in the peppermint oil are known to be antispasmodic, relaxing muscles in order to help with tension headaches. Note: Undiluted peppermint essential oil may be irritating to the skin. Try out a bit of oil on a small patch of skin to be sure it agrees with you, or dilute the oil in a carrier oil, such as grapeseed oil.

Feverfew for Headaches

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is a remedy many people use for headaches, including migraines. Feverfew can reduce both the frequency and severity of headaches when taken regularly. It is available in 60-mg capsules of fresh, powdered leaf (1 to 6 capsules daily), or 25-mg capsules of freeze-dried leaf (2 capsules daily). You can also make feverfew tea—steep 2 to 8 fresh leaves in boiling water, but do not boil them, since boiling breaks down the active parthenolides. Note: Avoid feverfew if you are pregnant, or if you are allergic to plants in the daisy family, and talk to your doctor before trying any herbs.

All in Your Head

Don’t discount the psychological dimensions of pain. Most headaches have psychogenic causes (such as anxiety, depression and stress), rather than vascular ones (dilated or distended blood vessels in the brain). Psychogenic headaches tend to diffuse, often feeling more like pressure than pain, and are typically accompanied by muscular tension.

Vascular headaches respond more readily to painkillers, whereas emotionally induced ones might benefit more from herbs for headaches with calming or sedative properties, such as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), chamomile (Matricaria recutita) or valerian (Valeriana officinalis).

Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist. 

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