As I write this, my husband (oh yeah, I got married since the last time we talked) is lying on the cold tile floor in the bathroom with a migraine. I hate seeing him suffer even more than I hate having a migraine myself. Between the two of us, we have nearly four decades of experience suffering from headaches and migraines. They’re the worst (especially migraines). But the good news is that we get them far less frequently than we used to. And dietary, lifestyle, and natural remedies are the reason. So today (while I try to avoid making any noise in our apartment), I’m writing up my top natural remedies for headaches and migraines.
The Difference Between Headaches and Migraines
Headaches and migraines are not the same thing. If you’ve had both of them, then you know that. Migraines are more severe and often accompanied by nausea, sensitivity to sound and light, dizziness, and more. But, both conditions have similar triggers and remedies.
For my husband, his migraines start with changes to his vision. And within an hour of that happening, he’s throwing up, in excruciating pain, and doing everything in his power to be lying on a cold, dark floor. By contrast, his headaches involve slight discomfort in his head or neck and are usually relieved by drinking water and resting.
For me, headaches tend to come on slowly and then progress to migraines if I don’t intervene. I started getting headaches at age 7 and was going to the school office nearly every day to take Tylenol. By the time I started menstruating, my headaches turned to migraines (thanks, hormones – common trigger, by the way).
For both of us, when we get a migraine (vs. a headache), we don’t mess around with the natural stuff. We take the meds (Excedrin migraine or Maxalt for me and panadols for him). Because, if we don’t, we end up in the hospital with much more serious pain meds and a hefty bill. But, when it comes to headache relief and migraine prevention, natural remedies can go a long way!
What Causes Headaches and Migraines?
Let’s start with what causes headaches and migraines. Because it’s a whole lot easier to solve problems when you know what’s causing them, right?
Headaches and migraines can have many different causes. They are often multifactorial, meaning it’s not just one of these things that resulted in the headache or migraine, but just the right combination to push you over the edge.
- Genetics – It’s a complex topic, but genetics do seem to be involved in predisposing people to migraines. My mom and grandma both get them too. For my husband, he’s the only one in his family.
- Hormones – Women are three times more likely than men to be migraine sufferers. Why? Hormones. For me, it’s the big shifts in hormones (like right before my period) that are migraine triggers. For my mom and grandma, same story, but their migraines disappeared with menopause (likely because there’s less hormonal fluctuations then). Hormones are definitely a common trigger.
- Caffeine – Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Caffeine withdrawal headaches are a thing and if you try to go off coffee you may experience them. For those who are extra sensitive to it like I am, drinking green tea one day and then not the next can trigger a headache. So I find I can either consume the same amount of caffeine daily at the same time, or avoid it completely. There’s no in between for me. But my husband, he’s a sporadic caffeine drinker and it doesn’t seem to effect him at all.
- Allergies – This is especially relevant if you suffer from sinus headaches, which are characterized by pain and pressure around the sinuses. Research suggests that headaches may accompany flare ups of sinusitis. They may happen when you have a cold, but if it’s more chronic, allergies may be to blame. When you have environmental allergies, the allergens (like dust, pollen, mold) trigger inflammation in your nasal passages.
- Inflammation – there’s a lot of other potential triggers, but many of them can be summarized by one word: inflammation. A big example and one I particularly like talking about as a nutritionist is diet. We’ll get to it later on, but know that dietary interventions can make a huge difference.
Some of these are factors you can’t change. But that last one – inflammation – is the most important when it comes to prevention and doing something about it. And that’s where diet and lifestyle come in.
Natural Remedies for Headaches and Migraines
When it comes to natural remedies for headaches and migraines, prevention is key. But before I challenge your diet and lifestyle (I know, I’m asking a lot, but trust me, it’s worth it), let’s talk about some ways to reverse a headache when it comes on. When it comes to acute care, I’m referring to headaches specifically, because as I already mentioned, we don’t mess around with the natural stuff when a migraine hits.
Though I would consider the following to be low risk interventions, as with anything I recommend on this site, it’s always a good idea to talk with your trusted practitioner about whether they are right for your specific situation. I’m just here to share my story and provide inspiration.
Acute Care for Headaches
- Hydrate – There’s surprisingly little evidence suggesting a connection between hydration and headaches, but I don’t think I have to explain to you why drinking water is good for your health. Hydrating is an easy, low cost, zero risk remedy to try. I used to be really bad about drinking enough water, but this water bottle and I have been attached at the hip for at least the past six years and I do think it makes a difference.
- Self massage – massaging sore muscles in the head, neck, and jaw can be helpful, especially if you’re suffering from a tension headache. There’s a region at the base of the skull called the occiput and using the thumb and index finger to massage it can be helpful for headaches. What’s even more helpful for me is releasing my jaw muscles through intra-oral techniques. It’s important to learn the technique from a practitioner who is trained in it (ask a chiropractor or massage therapist in your area if they have expertise or a recommendation – I highly recommend Portland Headache Massage).
- Peppermint essential oil – first, let me just say you’re supposed to dilute peppermint essential oil with a carrier oil (like avocado, olive, or almond oil) because it is potent. You should probably do that. But, apparently I have a bit of a rebel spirit because I usually apply a few drops to my hands and then rub directly on sore areas of my neck and jaw. I’ve used various brands of peppermint essential oil (such as Pharmaca and Young Living) and a more natural version of Icy Hot called China Gel that contains menthol. Both provide a cooling effect that soothes the pain. There’s also research suggesting it’s as effective as the anesthetic lidocaine for migraine attacks.
- Caffeine – ever noticed that Excedrin migraine contains caffeine? The relationship between caffeine and headaches/migraines is complicated. But when I saw that it was an ingredient in Excedrin migraine, I started experimenting with consuming caffeine (usually in the form of green tea) when I first felt a headache coming on. I’ve found that it’s sometimes enough for reversing my headaches.
- Ginger tea – fresh ginger tea is a potent and powerful remedy for nausea and pain. In fact, I just made some for my husband and he’s finally asleep and not throwing up from his migraine. Active components in ginger called gingerols inhibit the inflammatory COX-2 pathway. It’s the same pathway targeted by medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, advil, and motrin. Cool, huh? Learn more about the magic powers of ginger here.
- Heat pack or ice pack – I don’t know the mechanism behind this, but wow a heat pack feels good on my head when I have a migraine. Perhaps it releases tight muscles? I love this microwavable lavender eye pillow. But for my husband, he needs everything to be cold around him. Decide what feels best for you.
- Rest (and sleep) – Nothing cures my headaches and migraines like rest and sleep. Sleep is incredibly healing to the body. I don’t think we need to debate that.
Prevention for Headaches and Migraines
- Consume more antioxidants – Headaches and migraines involve inflammation. And inflammation involves oxidative stress. The solution for oxidative stress? Antioxidants! A study found that a combination of the antioxidants NAC, vitamin E, and vitamin C significantly reduced the frequency and duration of migraines. But where else can you get antioxidants? Food! Think brightly colored foods like hibiscus, wild blueberries, ginger, turmeric, and more. Eat the rainbow and watch your health improve.
- Avoid food sensitivities – Simply cutting out dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.) has reduced my husband’s migraines from a few times a month to a couple times per year (woah!). I wish it was that simple for all of us. For me, eggs are a major trigger, but I’m also still sensitive to gluten, dairy, and excess sugar. I wish I could tell you to take test X and then avoid food Y, but it doesn’t really work like that. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but food sensitivity testing isn’t all that reliable. The gold standard is a trial removal of some of the top offenders, such as dairy, alcohol, eggs, gluten (but test for celiac disease first!), MSG, limiting added sugars, and sugar substitutes like aspartame. Learn more here. It’s best to work with a nutritionist when trialing an elimination diet because it can cause or exacerbate nutritional deficiencies if not done with care.
- Correct nutritional deficiencies – magnesium, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and CoQ10 are the nutrients with the most evidence for helping reduce the frequency of migraines. Addressing any other nutrient deficiencies can also be helpful. For example, iron deficiency can cause the brain to receive less oxygen, leading to headaches. Grass-fed beef liver capsules have been a life-saver for correcting my iron deficiency when other iron supplements wouldn’t.
- Assess gut health – Headaches (and migraines) occur at higher rates in those with digestive disorders. Treating gut disorders takes time, patience, and experimentation. But luckily, there are solutions! I recommend working with a naturopath if you suffer from digestive issues in addition to your headaches or migraines. My gut health has improved drastically over the past 8 years (that was when I first saw a naturopath) and it has hugely improved my quality of life. Probiotics, prebiotics, prokinetics, stress reduction, and avoiding trigger foods are some of the top things that have helped me.
- Monitor caffeine intake – As mentioned above, caffeine can be both a trigger and a remedy for headaches. Confusing, right? Start tuning into your caffeine intake and headaches/migraines and see if there’s a correlation for you. Or maybe even play around with removing it to see if that makes a difference. You can learn more about caffeine and headaches/migraines here.
- Reduce allergen exposure – Easier said than done, but an air purifier and changing your HVAC filters every few months can help indoors. But for those times when that’s not enough, I supplement. I have environmental allergies to basically everything and have found that a supplement called Sinatrol is best at bringing down the inflammation and helping me breathe through my noise more easily. Ask your trusted practitioner (I recommend a naturopath) if it’s a good option for you.
- Consider hormonal fluctuations – Do your headaches or migraines happen around the same time in your menstrual cycle each month? Start paying attention to it. Research suggests that they’re most common in the two days before your period starts and the first three days of your cycle. The book Taking Charge of Your Fertility is immensely helpful for understanding your menstrual cycle and hormonal fluctuations (and it’s not just for people trying to get pregnant either). I think it should be required reading for everyone who menstruates. Now, shutting off your hormones isn’t the answer, but what can you do about it? Keep reading.
- Avoid endocrine disruptors– It’s not a secret that we are living in an increasingly toxic world. But why do most people not know that the everyday products they are using can artificially mimic hormones and cause health problems? It’s time to stop using hormone-disrupting chemicals like BPA, dioxins, etc. Artificially scented products need to go. Start reading labels and say no to “fragrance” in air “fresheners”, scented laundry soaps, perfume, cleaning products, etc. By the way, a few drops of your favorite 100% pure essential oil in the toilet (post-flush) after a smelly trip to the bathroom is the ultimate natural air freshener.
- Get massages regularly – Research suggests that head and neck trigger point therapy may reduce frequency, intensity, and duration of headaches. But do we really need research to believe this? The more frequently I get massages, the less headaches I get. I’ve found more lasting effects when working with advanced practitioners and especially with adding cupping. Yes, it’s expensive. But I will gladly shop second hand for clothes and wear them until torn to be able to afford massages. Think about how you might be able to adjust your budget to take care of your health. Or if you’re on a tighter budget, try a tennis ball, foam roller, or self massager.
I so hope this post helps bring less suffering and more enjoyment to your life. If it helps even just one person, my time feels worth it. It warms my heart to hear from you, so please share your story and thoughts in the comments. And if these headache and migraine tips help you, please pass this post along to others who may benefit from the read. xoxo Riley
P.s. into natural remedies? Check out my post on healing warts naturally.