Herbal Help for Headaches

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For many people, headaches, especially chronic or reoccurring headaches, seem to be just another part of life, but it shouldn’t have to be.

There are a myriad of things that can contribute to the occurrence of headaches. Some of these include stress, side-effects of medications, lack of sleep, food intolerances, allergies, eyestrain, poor digestion, PMS, dehydration, sinus infections, as well as  other potentially serious health issues. Sometimes you may know the cause, but not always. It is important to rule out the really serious causes. Keeping a headache diary (for 6 weeks) that includes the foods you eat, sleep habits, and anything else that might be a cause of the headaches is a VERY helpful tool for getting to the cause of the headaches. Armed with this information you can then set to work on finding a more appropriate and effective way to get rid of headaches.

For example, digestion can play an important role in headaches. If you ever had the “stomach flu” or fasted, then you may be able to relate to having headaches that were directly, and acutely, caused by what was happening in your digestive system. If there is chronic, or repeated, pain it is always a good idea to look after digestive health. Not only do you want to improve the health of your digestive system, but you may want to try a headache elimination diet – removing certain items from the diet for a few weeks to see how you respond, then reintroducing them back in to the diet, and again, see how you respond. This way you can zero in on the cause and remove it.

This is where White Willow (Salix alba) bark can come in handy. Not only is it a good anti-inflammatory for joint pain, but it is rich in flavonoids, and anti-inflammatory to the GI tract as well. Because of the way willow is metabolized in the body it also doesn’t have the same ulcer causing side effects as aspirin, nor is it the blood thinner that aspirin is. It can be combined with herbs like peppermint or ginger to make it more soothing and, in some cases, work better. One small, open label, clinical study using a combination of Willow and Feverfew showed dramatic results in reducing the frequency and intensity of migraine headaches.

Since drugs can cause headaches it is a good idea to take a realistic look at your pharmaceutical use. Are you using too much? Are you experiencing side effects? It is also possible that you are consuming too much coffee (or other caffeine containing foods or drinks), but withdrawal from these can also cause headaches. Fortunately, once you get through the withdrawal stage the headaches go away. Even some herbs can be a cause of headaches in some people. Two examples are Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga rasemosa) and Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), usually from over use.

Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus) can be useful where there is muscle tension, and in the form of a tincture it can be used internally and externally. It can make a nice addition to an essential oil blend for topical use.

For headaches associated with PMS, Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) may be what you’re looking for. With Skullcap you should start to feel the headache reducing in about five to ten minutes.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) can be effective for some people, and is useful where there are also allergies. This takes longer to work since it is taken as a preventative, so you want to try it for at least a month. Feverfew can be used in combination with other herbs, and has shown very good results when combined with willow, or with ginger . Be aware that if you want to stop taking Feverfew, it is best to wean off. Stopping “cold turkey” can result in rebound symptoms that may be worse than the original problem. This is good to know since it is best to err on the side of caution and be off the Feverfew 30 days before going in for surgery.

Wild Lettuce (Lactuca virosa) is another herb that is good where there is gastrointestinal pain. This herb is rich in saponins, so it is best to use either in small amounts or with soothing herbs. Wild Lettuce can also be great in conditions where there is musculoskeletal pain. There are not many studies done on this herb, and so it’s usefulness is more from traditional use and clinical experience, but a small study using mice demonstrated effectiveness similar to that of ibuprofen .

Where there is sinus pain it is also usually helpful to improve the health of the digestive system. However, herbs that can help balance the immune system include Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) and Echinacea. Herbs that can help with the congestion are peppermint, wasabi (and other mustards), and Eucalyptus. Adaptogenic herbs like Ashwaghanda, Rhodiola, or Holy Basil can also be useful. Many people also experience relief by using a Netti pot .

Where stress is the cause, I have often found small amounts of Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) to be useful. The adaptogens mentioned above are also good here when used as a preventive or when you know you are going to be going through a period of high stress.

Most of the tea blends for pain, once you’ve found the right one for you, work with just one to one-and-a-half cups of tea. That’s the key though… the right one for you.

Topical treatments for massage into the neck, shoulders, and sometimes temples, can include essential oil blends, some of the herbs mentioned above, as well as alternating applications of hot and cold herbal compresses. For example a cold comfrey compress (great for healing) can be alternated with a hot peppermint compress.

These are only some of the many herbal options for dealing with and preventing headaches. There are more. There are also dietary and supplement options that can be used. For example many people with migraine tend to be low in magnesium .

Remember that using herbs as pain relievers is still just a band-aid solution. It is best to get to the root of the problem so that you don’t need the pain relief in the first place, but it sure is nice to know that the herbs are there when you need them.

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Resources

  • Principles and Practices of Phytotherapy by Kerry Bone and Simon Mills
  • Clin Drug Investig. 2006;26(5):287-96
  • Cephalalgia. 2005 Nov;25(11):1031-41
  • Lancet. 1988 Jul 23;2(8604):189-92
  • Med Sci Monit. 2005 Sep;11(9):P165-9
  • J Ethnopharmacol. 2006 Sep 19;107(2):254-8.
  • American Family Physician. Nov 15, 2009; 80(10)
  • A Nutritional Perspective. Aug 2004; 1, pg 1
  • Alt Med Rev. 1999; 4(2):86-95
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