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Headaches appear at the worst possible moment, don’t they? Head pain puts a damper on everything, whether you’re getting ready for a long day of chasing the littles around or finally getting some self-care in. But the good news is natural remedies for headaches can help relieve head pain, even if you don’t always know the cause.
We’ll cover different types of headaches and their causes, and explore natural headache remedies. I like to have several options if I get hit with a headache. Life doesn’t stop just because my head hurts. While I believe strongly in putting my health first, I also don’t want to spend my time lying around with a headache!
Types of Headaches
It’s easy to view headaches as poorly-timed irritations, but they can be messengers. They tell us when our body needs something, like water or nutrients. Or they can tell us we have too much of something, like stress or caffeine.
Tension headaches are the most common, but you can also get hormone headaches, migraines, cluster headaches, and more. Headaches can also be a sign of a stroke. So if you’re having the worst headache of your life, you’ll want to call your doctor or 911.
Headaches can also happen thanks to hormone changes or imbalances or other health conditions. Allergy headaches are a common culprit. Approximately one in 20 adults has a headache nearly every day. Migraine disorders affect more than 29 million Americans, and 75% of them are women.
If you see a doctor for headaches, they tend to group them by how you describe them. This includes other symptoms that may occur with them, where the pain is, and how long they last.
We usually only care about how quickly we can get rid of headaches. I get it. Head pain is awful and never convenient. But before medicating the pain away, consider what may have caused it to help prevent it from coming back! I’m a big fan of addressing the root cause of health issues.
If you find yourself with a headache, chances are it falls under one of these two common categories.
Tension headaches are the most common type. These are also sometimes called stress headaches or tension-type headaches (TTH). It can feel like pain or pressure anywhere in the head, scalp, or neck.
Muscle tightness often causes tension headaches, which can be triggered by many things, including:
- Alcohol use
- Too much caffeine or a sudden decrease in usual caffeine intake
- Sinus infection
- Cold or flu
- Teeth grinding or jaw clenching
While tension headaches can happen to anyone, they are most common in women and may run in families. You can get tension headaches at the same time as other headache types, like migraine.
Tension headaches are typically felt all over the head and neck, while migraines are usually in one spot or side of the head. Something as simple as a DIY rice heat pack can help soothe the tense neck muscles.
Migraine headaches are also common. Sometimes people use the term “migraine” to refer to any head pain, but migraines are a specific type of headache. Migraine pain tends to be localized to one side of the head or intensely in one spot.
These types of headaches often come with other symptoms, like nausea and light sensitivity. Sometimes the pain is severe enough you may not be able to function. Nearly 12% of Americans get migraines, and researchers believe there is a genetic link.
Migraine attacks are often recurring and have some of the same triggers as headaches. But they may also be caused by other factors, including:
- Hormone changes
- Strong smells
- Loud noises
- Bright lights
- Lack of sleep
- Weather changes
- Too much physical activity
- Caffeine (too much or too little)
- Skipped meals
- Tobacco and alcohol
- Certain foods (chocolate, cheese, MSG, fermented foods, yeast, cured foods)
Other types of headaches include cluster headaches and secondary headaches. Cluster headaches are one of the most intense headache types but also the least common. These can wake someone up in the night with pain around one eye or one side of the head.
Secondary headaches are also less common and caused by serious medical concerns. This can include traumatic brain injury or vascular problems. A secondary headache will likely come on suddenly and can be associated with other concerning symptoms. If you ever get a sudden, severe headache, the safest option is to get emergency medical care.
How Can You Fix Headaches?
If you only get occasional headaches, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between factors that could have caused them. Were you short on sleep the night before? Maybe you didn’t drink enough water yesterday? Are your hormones changing?
Recurring headaches may be easier to tie to a health-related cause but not always! There are a lot of reasons why your head can hurt. But, always reaching for over-the-counter painkillers isn’t a solution.
Painkillers may work in the short term, but taking NSAIDs (like ibuprofen or aspirin) can damage the gut. This could trigger a leaky gut and cause more problems, like an autoimmune disease. I have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and while I’ve worked hard to get my health to a good place, no one wants an autoimmune disorder if they can prevent it.
Natural Remedies for Headaches (That Work)
The good news is there are many ways to naturally address head pain, even migraines. With a bit of experimentation, it’s possible to find the home remedies that work best for you. You may need to combine a few natural remedies to help in some cases.
The Internet is full of natural remedies for headache symptoms, but the evidence backs these easy options.
Hydration and Electrolytes
One of the most overlooked headache issues is dehydration. Hydration-related headaches can happen even if you drink plenty of water. This is especially true if you are low in electrolytes.
Electrolytes help your cells get nutrients where they need to go. While most of us aren’t short on sodium, other electrolytes like potassium, magnesium, and calcium may be imbalanced. These deficiencies can lead to headaches and other issues.
Diarrhea, vomiting, and sweating are the most common reasons why electrolyte balance could be off. But drinking a lot of water without electrolyte replacement can also cause problems.
We can balance our electrolytes in several ways.
- Eat potassium-rich foods like bananas and potatoes.
- Use magnesium-rich foods, like pumpkin seeds and cashews.
- Eat calcium-rich foods, like sardines or yogurt.
- Take an electrolyte supplement. These are often available as a powder or liquid to add to drinking water.
- Drink a sports beverage. Although most of these have sugar, artificial colors, and other ingredients I try to avoid.
My favorite way to get electrolytes is with these electrolyte packs that don’t have any questionable ingredients.
Magnesium is a crucial mineral that nearly half of the population is deficient in. This mineral plays a role in how your muscles function, among many other processes. When we don’t have enough magnesium, we’re more prone to things like muscle cramps or tense muscles. This could contribute to tension headaches.
There are many ways to support healthy magnesium levels, but for headache remedies, I like this supplement or this one. A bath with Epsom salt or magnesium bicarbonate is a soothing way to ease tension and boost magnesium.
Since ancient times people have utilized the health benefits of essential oils. They don’t all work the same though. Most essential oil headache remedies use the following, either individually or in a blend:
- Peppermint oil – Peppermint oil diluted in a carrier oil can be rubbed on the temples, neck, or wherever headache pain is present. (Do not put in or around the eyelids.) Peppermint oil works for tension and migraine headaches.
- Lavender essential oil – Lavender has a calming effect on the nervous system. Commonly used for stress relief, lavender is also soothing for head pain when inhaled. You can also apply diluted lavender essential oil topically.
- Basil essential oil – A 2020 trial found basil essential oil given with acetaminophen improved migraine symptoms better than the drug alone. improve and even prevent migraine
- Rose essential oil – Rose essential oil topically helped decrease “hot” migraine types in a 2017 trial. Patients saw results in as little as 30 minutes!
- Ginger essential oil – A friend of mine swears by ginger essential oil for headaches. It helps improve circulation and ease muscle aches. A 2014 trial found ginger powder was just as effective as certain migraine medications.
If you plan to use essential oils for headache relief, make sure to find a carrier oil that works for you. Some common carrier oils, like almond, can be problematic for people with allergies. Be sure to test the carrier oil before using it. When you already have a headache, the last thing you want is an allergic reaction to your remedy!
Good carrier oils for essential oils include coconut, jojoba, olive, and almond oil.
Chiropractic care can be a lifesaver depending on the type of pain. An adjustment can be great for headaches, especially if they’re tension-related. Even migraines can respond to chiropractic adjustments. National survey data shows one in five chiropractic patients come in with a headache complaint.
The nervous system is highly sensitive. If the bones or muscles put pressure on a nerve, it can translate into head or muscle pain elsewhere in the body.
Research shows plenty of positive support for chiropractic care in migraines. A case study found chiropractic treatment helped eliminate recurring migraines in one patient. Even better, at the 6-month mark, she was still migraine-free.
Other case studies highlight the benefits of using chiropractic with conventional headache treatments. The three patients had less pain, more pain-free days, and needed less medication. Researchers think the chiropractic care helped by lessening their musculoskeletal pain.
Chiropractors are also a wealth of knowledge on natural health remedies. They may offer even more recommendations for taking care of headaches.
Those of us who are on the computer a lot can have muscle tension or eye strain that causes headaches. Or maybe you’re a busy mom, and exercise time is squeezed between diaper changes, school drop-offs, and grocery store runs. Regular exercise without stretching properly can also cause tense muscles.
Whether it’s “text neck” from too much time looking down at the phone, or you just need to limber up, tense muscles can be a common head pain trigger.
Working proper stretching into a daily routine is an easy way to help loosen up and address head-related tension. Yoga is a great way to incorporate stretching into a fitness routine. But you don’t have to do anything formal. Simply standing more, bending, lengthening the back, and relaxing the shoulders can help with muscle relaxation.
Regular stretching routines can decrease headache frequency and pain intensity by nearly 70%!
Feverfew is an herb often called “medieval aspirin,” and it’s been used for centuries as a pain reliever. Research, while mixed, shows some benefits for headache and migraine relief. Feverfew can help with sensitivity to light, nausea, vomiting, and general pain relief. It can also help reduce migraine frequency.
This herb works best as a preventative and needs used regularly for several months for results. It’s not something that will remedy a migraine in the middle of one.
Feverfew is not safe for pregnancy and may cause allergic reactions in people sensitive to ragweed. It may also interact with blood thinners.
I like this brand of feverfew supplement, or you can get the whole herb. Be sure to check with your doctor first to ensure there are no interactions with other medications or supplements you take. Only take feverfew as indicated on the supplement label or as directed by your healthcare provider.
The Bottom Line
There are many natural ways to address headaches and migraines. If you get frequent headaches, especially if natural remedies do not seem to help, you should consult a neurologist. Nothing replaces personalized medical advice. But sometimes, all you need is a great home remedy with zero side effects.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Pfleghaar, D.O., FACEP, ABOIM. Dr. Jennifer is a double board-certified physician and is now working in Emergency Medicine and has an office in Ohio practicing Integrative Medicine. As always, this is not personal medical advice, and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you ever tried natural remedies for headaches or migraines? What worked for you?
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