If you get migraines, you know that they can be absolutely debilitating. Migraine sufferers must grapple with not only the pain, stress, and inconvenience that comes with this miserable condition, but also the fact that there just aren’t any cure-all remedies for migraines. What’s more, some of the commonly prescribed treatments out there have side effects of their own. The good news is that, though migraines are unique to each individual so there’s not a perfect natural cure for migraines, there are proven ways to get natural migraine relief. Read on to learn more about migraines and your options — natural and otherwise — for treating them.
What Is a Migraine?
Though it’s often thought of as a headache, a migraine is actually a neurological condition that can cause a wide array of different symptoms, headache being one of the primary ones. Despite how common they are (affecting over 1 billion people worldwide!), migraines are still fairly poorly defined, in part because they come in so many different forms and because there’s no one cause. Still, we know a good deal about how they manifest.
Besides an intense, debilitating headache — usually with throbbing or pulsing on one side of the head — migraine symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. They can also cause numbness or tingling, and make it difficult to speak. These symptoms sometimes last for hours or even days at a time, and they affect children and adults alike.
For some people, a warning symptom known as an aura occurs before or with the headache. An aura can include visual disturbances, such as flashes of light or blind spots, or other disturbances, such as tingling on one side of the face or in an arm or leg and difficulty speaking.
Making things more complicated, there’s the fact that there are multiple different types of migraines. The types of migraines that have been identified are:
- Chronic migraine: When a person experiences a migraine at least 15 days each month. It’s often associated with other conditions, such as depression, arthritis, or high blood pressure.
- Acute migraine: Also called episodic migraine, this term applies to anyone who gets migraines fewer than 15 days per month.
- Vestibular migraine: When the migraine is accompanied by symptoms of vertigo, such as dizziness and loss of balance.
- Optical migraine: When a person experiences visual symptoms along with other migraine symptoms (or sometimes on their own). This can include flashes of light, a blind spot, or temporary loss of vision in one eye.
- Hormonal or menstrual migraine: These are migraines linked with certain points of a woman’s hormonal cycle, such as ovulation, menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, or going off or on a hormonal birth control pill.
There’s no one cause of migraines, but potential theories include: An underlying central nervous disorder, irregularities in the brain’s blood vessel system, or abnormalities of brain chemicals and nerve pathways. There’s also research suggesting that there’s a genetic component, and migraines tend to run in families. There are also migraine triggers, including certain foods and food additives, alcohol, caffeine, stress and anxiety, hormonal changes, certain medications, extreme exercise, sleeping issues, certain medications, and environmental triggers like weather changing, flashing lights, loud noises, and strong smells. You have an increased risk of migraines if you’re a woman (post-puberty women tend to have three times the amount of migraines than men), likely due to the hormonal component.
Conventional Remedies for Migraines
When someone goes to a conventional doctor, they’ll generally be offered conventional remedies for a migraine. Because a migraine is so difficult to treat and cure, there’s a wide range of medications and treatments that a doctor could prescribe, from off-label prescriptions to everyday drugstore meds to quite experimental approaches (psychedelic mushrooms!).
In terms of prescription drugs that are specifically meant to target migraines, and thus approved by the FDA for that purpose, here are the various options available today, as well as the side effects of each:
- Triptans: This is a class of drugs that block pain pathways to the brain. They work by constricting arteries, which means they’re dangerous for anyone with underlying heart issues. Their other side effects include dizziness, nausea, weakness, sleepiness, chest pain, and racing heart.
- Dihydroergotamines: This class of drugs work by tightening the blood vessels in the brain to reduce swelling. They’re taken as a spray or an injection right at the onset of migraine symptoms to prevent or reduce the severity of the attack. However, they can sometimes actually worsen symptoms.
- CGRP Blockers: Three new drugs were recently approved by the FDA as remedies for migraines, all of which block a protein fragment called CGRP, which initiates and intensifies migraine attacks. CGRP blockers have been associated with gastrointestinal issues, and since they’re so new to the market, nothing is known about their long-term risks.
Beyond migraine-specific medications, migraine sufferers might also be prescribed over-the-counter painkillers, which have their own side effects, or even opioids, which obviously have some very serious risks of their own. It’s also not uncommon for people to take antidepressants or anticonvulsants as preventative measures against migraines — or even to get Botox injections for the same reason. You may be wondering why a drug used for depression with serious side effects or a plastic surgery procedure for wrinkles would be used as a conventional remedy for migraines. The answer is that not enough of the conventional system is thinking about root causes, and trying to address those.
The Best Ways to Find Natural Migraine Relief
As always, we prefer to treat the root cause as opposed to popping pills that just treat the symptoms and may create other health issues of their own. And when treating the root cause isn’t possible because it is not yet known or there are several root causes and you need relief fast — as is sometimes the case with migraines — we’re always looking for the most natural, least invasive path to feeling better. To that end, we rounded up the most effective ways to find natural migraine relief, all of which come with few side effects, and many of which can have an overall positive impact on your well-being.
The top six ways to find natural migraine relief (click to skip to a section):
- Dietary Changes
- Herbal and Plant-Based Remedies
- Vitamins and Supplements
- Essential Oils
- Acupressure and Acupuncture
- Stress Reduction
Natural Cure for Migraine #1: Dietary Changes
It should come as no surprise to regular readers that diet is the first thing to address when trying to prevent migraine attacks — after all, what you do and don’t choose to put inside the body provides the basis for how all of your bodily systems function.
First off, it’s important to avoid foods and drinks that trigger migraines. Common triggers include alcohol (especially red wine), chocolate, artificial sweeteners, and foods that contain nitrates (think processed meats like hot dogs or sliced turkey). Migraine sufferers should also avoid cheese that contain the naturally-occurring compound tyramine, which is found in certain aged cheeses including blue, feta, Swiss, and Parmesan.
Caffeine is another potential trigger, but this one is a bit complicated — see, caffeine can also help to treat migraine. It all comes down to the quantity, with the right amount of caffeine leading to relief and too much leading to worsening symptoms. This means that you need to do a bit of self-monitoring and investigation to figure out how much caffeine is the right amount for you — for most people, that means between 100-400 mg of caffeine per day.
In terms of what you should eat, magnesium-containing foods like oatmeal, eggs, leafy greens, and nuts and seeds can help stave off a migraine (see below for why magnesium is helpful). It’s also super important to drink plenty of water, as even mild dehydration can be a migraine trigger, and research shows that those who experience migraines are already more sensitive to dehydration. Just make sure that the water is high quality: either filtered tap if you’re home or from a trusted bottled water brand if you’re on the go.
Natural Cure for Migraine #2: Herbal and Plant-Based Remedies
There are a lot of herbs and plants touted as offering natural migraine relief without a ton of research to back them up (feverfew and valerian, to name a few). However, there are two that have the science on their side: ginger and butterbur.
In a 2014 study, researchers compared the effectiveness of ginger powder with sumatriptan (a common migraine drug in the triptan category), and found that the ginger was statistically equivalent to the prescription drug. What’s more, ginger poses no potential side effects or long-term health risks to users. Taking ginger as a powder gives you the most concentrated dose, but you can also drink ginger tea or incorporate it into your diet.
Butterbur is a leafy shrub that’s commonly found in the northern hemisphere, and it’s long been used for migraine relief. According to the American Migraine Foundation, taking a daily dose of butterbur for three months was effective for reducing migraine frequency. One caveat here is that it presents a very rare but very serious risk of liver toxicity, so exercise caution before jumping on the butterbur bandwagon.
Natural Cure for Migraine #3: Vitamins and Supplements
As we alluded to above, magnesium is a power player in terms of migraine prevention. This is because having low magnesium levels can trigger the onset of a migraine attack. Thankfully, this risk factor can be eliminated by simply taking a magnesium supplement. Studies show that taking magnesium supplements can help reduce several common types of migraine, including migraine with aura and hormonal migraines. Magnesium has few side effects but it can cause some digestive distress, so it’s wise to start with a small dose and then slowly increase until you get to the recommended dose of 600mg per day.
Other supplemental remedies for migraine include B vitamins, Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), and fish oil. The B vitamins play an important role in regulating neurotransmitters in the brain, and since migraine is a neurological condition, this complex of vitamins can be helpful in reducing symptoms. Specifically, studies show that B2, B6, B9 (folate), and B12 may provide some natural migraine relief.
The body naturally produces CoQ10, a substance with antioxidant properties that helps metabolize food. In one small study, researchers found that people taking 100mg of CoQ10 supplements per day saw reduced migraine severity, frequency, and duration.
A recent study also found that a diet high in fatty fish and fish oil and low in vegetable oil could reduce the frequency of migraines by 30-40%, as well as the severity of pain. This is likely because fish oil is anti-inflammatory, while linoleic acid (found in vegetable oil) can cause inflammation in pain processing tissues and pathways. You can consume fish oil by eating fatty fish (like mackerel, salmon, and trout) or by taking a fish oil or Omega-3 supplement.
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Natural Cure for Migraine #4: Essential Oils
As with herbal and plant-based treatments, a lot of essential oils put forth as remedies for migraine don’t do much. But, also like herbal treatments, two essential oils have research backing up their claims of providing natural migraine relief.
According to a study published in European Neurology, people who inhaled lavender oil for 15 minutes during migraine attacks experienced faster relief of symptoms as compared to a placebo. If you’d like to use lavender oil as a natural cure for migraine, you can inhale it directly, apply diluted oil to temples, or use a diffuser for a less intense dose.
While lavender can relieve migraine symptoms once they’ve begun, peppermint oil may prevent those symptoms from occurring in the first place. In one study, researchers found that applying a menthol solution to the forehead and temples was more effective than a placebo for preventing migraine symptoms like pain, nausea, and light sensitivity.
Natural Cure for Migraine #5: Acupressure and Acupuncture
Acupressure and acupuncture are both forms of Traditional Chinese Medicine that use the idea of qi (life energy) passing through meridians (sort of like passageways) in the body to promote optimal health in the body. They use certain defined parts of the body, called acupoints, to unblock qi or stimulate flow, thus restoring balance and treating various ailments. While acupuncture does this with thin needles, acupressure uses — you guessed it — pressure.
With acupressure, applying pressure to the acupoint between the base of the left thumb and pointer finger for five minutes may relieve headache pain, and research suggests that applying pressure to the acupoint on the inside of the arm is effective in relieving migraine-associate nausea or vomiting.
Meanwhile, a systematic review of studies found that acupuncture is as effective as common migraine medications for relieving and preventing migraine attacks, while another study showed acupuncture to be more effective and safer than an anticonvulsant drug commonly used to treat chronic migraines. There are very little studies directly comparing pharmaceutical drugs and natural remedies so this is super exciting and encouraging!
Natural Cure for Migraine #6: Stress Reduction
Stress is a common migraine trigger, and can lead to a vicious cycle where stress triggers a migraine, then the migraine creates more stress, which triggers another migraine, and so on. Thankfully, there are tons of effective ways to reduce stress. Some stress reduction techniques that have proven to be particularly effective when it comes to migraines are yoga, massage, and biofeedback.
Yoga can help to relieve both mental and physical tension, creating a sense of calm and peace while also leaving muscles and joints loose and relaxed. In one study, researchers compared conventional migraine treatment plus yoga with conventional migraine treatment alone, and found that those who participated in yoga experienced more relief. This direct comparison is another big win for natural remedies! Another study found that practicing yoga reduced the frequency, duration, and intensity of migraines in women.
It’s easy to think of massage as an indulgence, but it’s actually an important act of self-care that can have a variety of health benefits, one of which is providing natural migraine relief. One study found that a weekly massage can reduce migraine frequency, likely by improving sleep quality, perceived stress, and coping skills.
Biofeedback is a relaxation method that involves being connected to electrical sensors, so you can learn to control your involuntary physical responses to stress. Research suggests that it can be an effective way to reduce the frequency of migraines.
The WellBe Takeaway: Finding the Right Natural Cure for Migraine
If you get migraines, you know that they’re awful. Thankfully, there are options out there for natural migraine relief. To make sorting through all the info less of a headache (sorry, couldn’t resist), we’ll distill it all down into the key takeaways:
- A migraine is a neurological condition associated with a range of symptoms, including intense, throbbing headache; nausea; vomiting; sensitivity to light and sound; visual disturbances.
- Conventional remedies for migraines include over-the-counter and prescription painkillers (including opiates), as well as specific FDA-approved migraine medications. To prevent migraines, doctors sometimes turn to off-label use of certain treatments, including antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and Botox.
- As is almost universally true for synthetic drugs, most conventional remedies for migraine have a variety of different side effects, making them less than ideal to take long-term. More importantly, none of them address the root cause of why a migraine is triggered.
- There are a number of effective natural remedies for migraines. None will work for everyone, but each offers certain benefits that can help to stop, reduce, or prevent migraine attacks. If you want to find a natural cure for migraine, the most effective approaches are: adjusting your diet, trying herbal and plant-based remedies, taking certain vitamins or supplements, using essential oils, using acupoints, and reducing stress through specific stress reduction techniques.
- Stress reduction can be effective for reducing migraines, since stress is a migraine trigger. Research-based stress reduction techniques include yoga, massage, biofeedback.
- In terms of dietary changes, you should avoid triggers like alcohol, too much caffeine, processed meats, chocolate, and certain cheese. You should also be sure to stay hydrated and seek out magnesium-containing foods like leafy greens, oatmeal, and nuts.
- Both ginger and butterbur are research-backed herbal remedies for migraine.
- The best vitamins and supplements to help with migraine are magnesium, B vitamins, and CoQ10.
- Both peppermint and lavender essential oil have proved effective for treating migraines. Inhale them directly or apply a diluted solution to the skin.
- Research suggests that both acupressure and acupuncture can help relieve or prevent migraines.
Do you experience migraines? If so, what remedies — natural or otherwise — have you tried? What’s worked? Let us know in the comments below!
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- Andersson, M. et al. Psychoactive substances as a last resort—a qualitative study of self-treatment of migraine and cluster headaches. Harm Reduct J. 2017; 14: 60.
- Deen, M. et al. Blocking CGRP in migraine patients – a review of pros and cons. J Headache Pain. 2017; 18(1): 96.
- Wober, C. et al. Triggers of migraine and tension-type headache. Handb Clin Neurol. 2010;97:161-72.
- Maghbooli, M. et al. Comparison Between the Efficacy of Ginger and Sumatriptan in the Ablative Treatment of the Common Migraine. March 2014. Phytotherapy Research 28(3)