According to the National Headache Foundation, more than 37 million Americans experience migraines. Over-the-counter treatments typically consist of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen. While effective at relieving pain, long-term use of NSAIDs can lead to ulcers, bleeding in the stomach and may even contribute to the development of heart disease. Fortunately, there are several natural treatments to try that have been shown to be effective but with few unpleasant side effects. However, have a talk with your physician before using any herbal therapy if you currently take pharmaceutical medicines because interactions are possible.
Peppermint (Mentha x. Piperita) contains several active compounds, most notably thymol and eugenol. While these agents provide anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic effects against irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal complaints when the herb is taken as an enteric coated tablet, massaging the essential oil “neat” (undiluted) on the temples and forehead helps to decrease migraine symptoms. Several clinical studies have demonstrated this benefit over the last decade, but the first published account appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1879. Peppermint oil has also been shown to ease symptoms of nausea, which often accompanies migraine.
The aromatic properties of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) are owing to aldehydes and ketones, the same organic compounds that promote a mild sedative effect. Like peppermint essential oil, lavender is one of the few essential oils that can be applied directly to the skin without being diluted in a carrier oil. As an alternative to applying the oil to the skin, one or two drops placed on a cotton ball or tissue and inhaled every few minutes can often thwart a migraine.
Also known as Queen of the Meadow and Trumpet Weed, the almond-scented flowers of meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) contain salicylic acid, a compound also found in willow bark that has been used to produce aspirin since the 1800s. The analgesic properties are due to the decreased production of inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins. The aspirin-like compounds also deters platelets aggregate, which would otherwise lead to an increased release of serotonin into the bloodstream. Although this neurotransmitter is associated with feelings of well-being and enhanced mood, it is also involved in setting off nerve impulses and changes in blood vessels that can trigger a migraine.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) is a member of the sunflower family that is native to the wetlands of Europe, Asia and North America. Its common name is a reference to its historical use of wrapping logs of butter with the plant’s large leaves in warm weather. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, there is evidence that this herb reduces symptoms related to nasal allergies by exerting an anti-histamine action. Butterbur is also used topically for wounds and internally to address anxiety, fever, cough, gastrointestinal disorders, urinary tract infections and headache. Owing to an anti-inflammatory compound called petasin, butterbur formulas have been shown to reduce the frequency of migraines after supplementing for three or four months. A patented standardized extract marketed as “Petadolex” is available. Alternately -- and because I personally feel that whole herb medicine is more effective, and because I find the patenting of natural raw materials an injustice -- you can make your own capsules or tincture.
As the name suggests, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is a febrifuge, meaning it reduces fever. Like butterbur, feverfew prevents the release of histamine from mast cells and, like meadowsweet, the herb also inhibits platelet aggregation. Feverfew also provides potent anti-inflammatory properties and when taken regularly has been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. The herb may be taken in capsule form or as a tincture.