Herbs for Health: Migraine Headaches and Feverfew

| October/November 1995

  • Feverfew
  • Commercial cultivation of feverfew
  • White willow
  • Rain-forest tree fern
  • Feverfew
  • Celery seed
  • Ginkgo

Few chronic ailments result in as many trips to medical practitioners in search of relief as the migraine headache. As many as one in eight people suffers at some time from migraines, experiencing the sensation of having a Mack truck drive through the head: pounding, seething pain, often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, that makes it difficult to get through the day, go to sleep, or relate to fellow human beings. Of the many herbs that have been called upon over the centuries to counteract the painful, often debilitating symptoms of migraines, the most thoroughly researched has been feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium).

Historical Uses

While headaches—migraine or otherwise—are often a result of the stress of modern life, they are certainly nothing new to human experience, nor is the use of feverfew as a treatment. John Goodyer’s 1655 translation of the materia medica of Dioscorides (the first-century Greek physician who served as a physician in the Roman army) states that feverfew is good for “melancholicall”; we’d call it “headaches”.

Gerard’s Herball, first published in 1597, advises: “Feverfew dried and made into pou­der, and two drams of it taken with honie or sweet wine, purgeth by siege melancholy and flegme, whereforre it is very good for them that are giddie in the head, or which have the turning called Vertigo, this is a swimming and turning in the head. Also it is good for such as be melancholike, sad, pensive, and without speech.”

Similarly, the seventeenth-century English herbalist Ni­cholas Culpeper, whose English Physician Enlarged is the most widely printed English-language herbal of all time, observed the use of feverfew for headache: “It is very effectual for all pains in the head coming of a cold cause, the herb being bruised and applied to the crown of the head; as also for the Vertigo, that is a sunning or swimming of the head.”

Modern Studies

In the past decade, references to feverfew as a migraine remedy have assumed a new emphasis. Several articles published in British medical journals have catapulted feverfew into recognition as one treatment for prevention of symptoms associated with migraines. Adopting an unusual approach, researchers in two studies bypassed animal studies and instead sought human volunteers who were already using feverfew for self-treatment of migraine. Seventeen volunteers participated in a double-blind study by Johnson and coworkers conducted in 1985 at the City of London Migraine Clinic in collaboration with the Chelsea College of the University of London. Nine of them received a placebo, and this group reported a significant increase in the frequency and severity of migraines and associated symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. The eight patients who continued to ingest feverfew reported no change in their migraines.

Of seventy-two participants in a study by Murphy and coworkers in 1988, fifty-nine were assessed at the end of the randomized, double-blind, pla­cebo-controlled trial. In those who took feverfew, the researchers observed a significant reduction in the mean number and severity of migraine headaches, as well as a reduction in vomiting. The greater number of participants in this trial compared to the 1985 study lent support for the claim that feverfew prevents migraines.

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