Did you know that headaches are the most common form of pain? Relatively minor and temporary conditions such as dehydration, stress, the flu, a cold, an ear or tooth infection, or staring at a computer screen for too long cause most headaches. Others may be caused by underlying medical issues, like a blow to the head or something more serious.
Fortunately, you can ease most headache pain naturally. While over-the-counter medications may alleviate the pain of both chronic and occasional headaches, natural remedies provide relief without the side effects of pharmaceuticals.
The Different Types of Headaches
No two headaches are alike. Head pain can come on suddenly or develop gradually, go away within an hour or last for several days, or feel sharp, dull, or throbbing. If you have a migraine, you may see flashes of light, become hypersensitive to noise, or feel nauseous.
Doctors have described two main types of headaches: primary and secondary. Primary headaches result from physical issues. Some examples include altered blood flow to the brain, neck, and head, hormone or nerve activity in the brain, tension in the head and neck muscles, or some combination of these factors.
Primary headaches include:
- Migraines (with or without aura)
- Cluster headaches
- Tension headaches
Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are caused by a disease or condition that pushes, pulls, or presses on pain-sensitive nerve endings in the brain. These conditions may cause secondary headaches:
- High blood pressure
- Sinus infection or allergies
- Eye infection or eye strain
- Fever and congestion
- Other conditions
Knowing the causes of your head pain will help you decide which remedy will work best.
Natural Remedies for Headaches
Over-the-counter pain medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen tend to be the standard recommendation for alleviating a pounding headache. But, many natural remedies can eliminate headaches, or at least reduce their intensity and their frequency of occurrence. Consider the following strategies and see what works best for you.
1. Drink More Water
If you suspect that dehydration may be causing your headache, drink up! Consuming two to three cups of water may help, but it may take 30 minutes to three hours to work. Research hasn't found that drinking more water can prevent headaches, however. Generally, it's important for your overall health to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water throughout the day.
2. Use Essential Oils
Essential oils provide many therapeutic benefits, and both lavender and peppermint essential oils can help relieve headaches. Studies have found peppermint oil to be as effective as acetaminophen (paracetamol) and aspirin for tension headaches. Apply a couple of drops of undiluted peppermint oil to your temples, making sure to avoid your eye area. If your skin is sensitive, you can dilute it in a carrier like almond or coconut oil. Using lavender essential oil for aromatherapy also helps relieve stress and headaches; simply rub some between your hands and inhale. Some evidence suggests that lavender is an effective and safe way to reduce the severity of migraine headaches.
3. Sleep More
If you have a headache, take a nap. But if you get headaches regularly, you might want to consider how much sleep you get each night. Migraine, tension, and cluster headaches are associated with sleep deprivation and other sleep disorders like insomnia. If you struggle with insomnia, natural solutions to better sleep, can help, such as keeping electronics out of your bedroom and setting your bedroom thermostat between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Conversely, while you need to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night, sleeping too much can actually increase the occurrence of headaches.
4. Apply Heat or Cold
Placing a cold compress on your neck may reduce the pain of a migraine, while heat may be better for tension headaches. However, either may reduce pain and help relieve your headaches. Try both and see which works best for you.
5. Turn Off the Lights
Photophobia, or sensitivity to light, co-occurs with migraines so frequently that doctors consider it diagnostic of them. Blue light, which emanates from cell phones and computer screens, can cause stress headaches as well, so turn off your devices and step away for a while. One solution for photophobia-induced headaches is to go into a dark or dimly lit room for 20 to 30 minutes. While sitting quietly in the dark, it's a great time to quiet your mind and meditate.
6. Meditate & Practice Yoga
Meditation offers a simple way to relax, still your mind, and breathe deeply — all of which reduce headache pain. Whether you are a beginner or you meditate regularly, this quiet practice can calm your nerves, steady the blood flow to the brain, and eliminate tension. Mindfulness meditation reduces the intensity of primary headaches, and yoga can reduce the frequency that people get migraine headaches. Consider learning about the best meditation practices and try different yoga classes to see what style you prefer.
7. Try Acupuncture
Studies found that getting at least six acupuncture treatments reduces the frequency of migraine headaches as effectively as pain medication. A review of multiple studies found that 41 percent of people getting acupuncture had half as many migraine headaches in the months following treatment. Acupuncture also proved more effective than sham acupuncture, a "control" technique used to test for the placebo effect.
8. Use Pressure Points
In acupressure, practitioners push on specific body pressure points for different conditions. You can even perform acupressure on headache pressure points on your own. Try using your right thumb and index finger to press hard on the loose skin between these same fingers on your left hand for ten seconds. This pressure point is called LI-4 or Hegu.
9. Get a Massage
Since many headaches come from tension in the upper back, neck, jaw, and shoulders, a massage can do wonders. Massage has many therapeutic benefits with few risks. It improves blood circulation while reducing blood pressure, soothing pain, reducing stress and anxiety, and just making you feel good. Add in some lavender or rosemary oil for the bonus of aromatherapy with your massage.
Foods That Help With Headaches
Although some foods are known to cause headaches, others may help prevent or ease a headache. Try the following foods, which are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients, next time your head hurts.
Kale & Leafy Greens
Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, chard, and collard greens are foods high in folate. A low intake of this B vitamin may increase the risk of headaches. Kale is a superfood, one of the most nutrient-rich foods around. Kale has healthy omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and magnesium, all of which help you sleep soundly.
People who suffer from migraines may have lower levels of magnesium in their blood serum compared to people who don't get them. Magnesium affects the release of neurotransmitters in the body, and the constriction of blood vessels (vasoconstriction), which can affect headaches. Almonds have naturally high levels of magnesium — one ounce of almonds provides 80 milligrams.
Coffee & Tea
Did you realize that you can find headache relief from a cup of Joe? Caffeine is commonly used in over-the-counter pain relievers, but you can get this same effect from coffee. Between 100 and 130 milligrams of caffeine — the amount in an 8-ounce cup of coffee — may help ease both migraine and tension headaches.
Organic Raw Apple Cider Vinegar
Organic raw apple cider vinegar (ACV) is an amazing creation. Not only does it contain a probiotic "mother" that revs up your immune system, but ACV also gives your digestive system a boost which can help with headaches. ACV also encourages normal blood sugar, which is beneficial because blood sugar spikes may cause head pain.
Supplements for Headaches
It's a good idea to get your nutrients from food. But sometimes, you may lack certain vitamins and minerals because of your diet, and in those cases, you can take nutritional supplements to fill the gaps. These supplements may help with your headaches.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the frequency and severity of headaches, as well as promote an overall balanced mood. While fatty fish like salmon, herring, sardines, and tuna are good sources of omega-3s, I recommend avoiding fish sources. Instead try looking to flax seed, algae oil, and other plant-based sources of omega-3s.
Some studies have found elevated levels of homocysteine, an amino acid produced by the body, in people who get migraines. Some studies have found that supplementing with vitamin B-12 may normalize homocysteine levels in the body, and as a result, may help with headaches, though the studies are inconclusive. Foods high in vitamin B-12 include primarily animal sources, so if you eat a plant-based diet, you may need to take a B-12 supplement.
Insufficient magnesium causes blood vessels to constrict, and when that happens in the brain, it can lead to head pain. Studies have found that taking a magnesium supplement can influence blood flow, easing headache tension. Many people do not get enough magnesium in their diet and adding a supplement to your daily regimen may help.
Also called vitamin B-2, riboflavin in high doses may reduce headache frequency. Scientists had people take 400 milligrams every day for six months and observed that cut the number of headaches people experienced in half, from four to two per month average. Taking this vitamin also reduced the amount of migraine medication the patients needed to take.
Our bodies naturally produce an antioxidant known as CoQ10 or coenzyme Q, but taking more can serve as a natural remedy for a headache. In the body, CoQ10 provides energy to cells, but some people with various health ailments may be deficient in this substance. It may help with headaches by normalizing blood pressure.
This herbal supplement may help prevent migraines, but the evidence is inconclusive. The most recent rigorous trial found that taking feverfew caused, on average, 0.6 fewer migraines a month. The study found no major safety concerns with taking feverfew supplements.
Butterbur, a flower in the sunflower family, may help prevent headaches according to the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society. However, unprocessed butterbur plant contains toxic chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), so only use supplements labeled and certified as PA-free.
What Causes Headaches?
Now that you know natural ways to eliminate headaches, you may also want to know what causes them so you can avoid potential triggers. Common causes of headaches include:
- Skipped meals
- Inadequate or uncomfortable sleep
- Neck muscle pain
- Bright lights
- Cigarette smoke or alcohol
- Strong odors, like perfume
- Certain foods
- A medical condition
Foods That Cause Headaches
Some people experience headaches after eating certain foods. Common food triggers include:
- Caffeine (or caffeine withdrawal)
- MSG (monosodium glutamate)
- Nitrates and nitrites
- Aged cheese
- Fermented, pickled, or marinated foods
- Alcohol, particularly red wine
If you suspect something that you eat may be causing your headaches, keep a food journal to help identify food triggers so you can eliminate them from your diet.
An irregular eating schedule can also lead to headaches, whether you miss a meal because you are too busy to eat or because you are fasting. When you are fasting or cleansing, headaches typically go away once caffeine and other toxins are fully eliminated from your bloodstream and your body adjusts.
Genes & Headaches
It's not uncommon for migraines to run in families and research suggests that migraines, in particular, have a genetic basis. A 2013 study published in the journal Nature Genetics looked at more than 100,000 people and identified 12 genetic regions, including five new ones, associated with people's susceptibility to migraines.
Stress & Headaches
Headaches are more likely to occur when you feel stressed. Stress can cause both tension headaches and migraines, and it can worsen headaches caused by other issues. Find ways to reduce and handle stress, such as taking breaks throughout the day, exercising, and meditating.
Sleep & Headaches
Too little and too much sleep, as well as sudden changes in your sleeping pattern, may trigger tension headaches and migraines. Less than six hours or more than eight and a half hours of sleep appear to increase the severity of headaches. Those who suffer from headaches are two to eight times more likely than the average person to have a sleep disorder, so talk to your healthcare provider if you are concerned.
Exercise & Headaches
Common activities associated with exercise headaches include weight lifting and cardiovascular exercise such as running, swimming, rowing, and playing tennis. Avoid exercising outdoors in hot, humid weather or at high altitudes, as both can increase the likelihood of an exercise headache.
Sex & Headaches
For some people, having sex can trigger a headache. Sex headaches may be a dull ache or severe pain and typically happen immediately before or during orgasm. They occur more frequently in men than women. On the other hand, studies show that sex can actually relieve headaches in some people, at least temporarily, as blood flows away from the head region during orgasm. Sex headaches should not be a cause for alarm unless they linger long afterward.
Points to Remember
Simple, healthy practices can help alleviate and prevent headaches, whether migraines, tension headaches, or other types of headaches. If you have a headache, natural remedies include drinking water, going into a dark room, and using stress-reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation, and aromatherapy using essential oils. The caffeine from a cup of coffee may also help.
One of the best natural remedies for tension headaches involves relaxing your body and mind, which calms your muscles, reduces your body tension, lowers your blood pressure, and soothes your nerves. Get enough sleep — but not too much — and eat foods that help headaches, like kale and almonds. Some supplements may reduce the frequency of headaches, including magnesium, B-12, feverfew, and butterbur.
It can also be beneficial to avoid triggers. Everyone has different triggers, though, so consider keeping a journal to help you identify yours.
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†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.