"The American Council on Headaches (ACHE) estimates that nearly every person suffers at least one headache a year, and that for 45 million sufferers, headaches are long-lasting and intense."

They grip you without mercy: headaches that make your temples throb, compress the scalp or the back of your head and, in the extreme, make you feel in the throes of a brain meltdown. You’d give anything at that moment to save you from the pain; and indeed, if the headaches do not result from an existing condition that requires medical help, a number of natural remedies are within easy reach.

Fresh air and light exercise, along with rest and some diversion, and herbal baths with mint, lavender and rosemary may help relieve tension headaches. A good diet with lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and no smoking provide preventive measures. But what else? Specific nutrients and non-nutrient herbs have been shown to be effective natural treatments to help relieve headaches.

Natural Herbal Remedies

Willow Tree Bark

For those who avoid Aspirin, the old standby for a headache, and pass over other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, the willow tree offers its bark. The bark contains a variety of substances, including salicin, that convert in the body to a compound related to Aspirin.

A friend reports that on a walk in the woods, with a headache triggered by an arguing companion, she sought a willow tree, chewed on a young twig, et voila! Her headache was gone. The remedy is not foolproof, but worth a try. In effect, salicin occurs in such small amounts that if consumed as a tea by steeping the bark in boiling water, one would have to drink between three to 21 cups per dose to achieve some pain relief.

Feverfew

Traditionally used in Europe for headache relief, the daisy-like flower called feverfew comes closest to being a cure-all or panacea. This aromatic perennial herb is a remedy for primary headaches. A report in the medical journal The Lancet in 1988 showed that treatment with feverfew reduced both the number and severity of headaches in a group of volunteers. Keep a potted plant on hand and chew on its leaves. When purchasing commercially available feverfew tablets, seek a reputable manufacturer because some of the products have been found to contain only a small amount of the active plant material.

Capsaicin

Capsaicin, the active "hot" compound in cayenne pepper or chili pepper helps relieve cluster headaches–the sudden painful headaches that occur on one side of the head and centre around one eye. A clinical study in the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, showed that capsaicin reduced the severity of headaches when applied topically into the nostril for seven days. Capsaicin appears to block the transmission of pain so that even though the condition still exists, no perception of pain reaches the brain.

Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo leaf extracts are popular in Europe (mainly Germany) for treating ailments associated with decreased cerebral blood flow, including headaches. Clinical and pharmacological studies have shown that ginkgo extracts improve blood flow in arteries and in capillaries. Large doses are required, which explains why the concentrate is used rather than the herb itself.

Nutrient Remedies

Magnesium

Magnesium is found in abundance in milk, wheat bran, bananas and apricots, among other foods. As a supplement, magnesium is widely used in Canada to help relieve migraine headaches. Studies in Italy have suggested that low intake results in insufficient magnesium in the brain that may be related to migraines. A German study in 1996 found that over 40 percent of migraine sufferers who took magnesium supplements reduced the duration and severity of their migraine attacks. For PMS-related headaches, a dose of 500 milligrams per day one week before the onset of menstruation and one week after reduced the onset of severe headaches.

Calcium and Vitamin D

Calcium levels fluctuate with hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, and absorption is enhanced by vitamin D. Investigators in Belgium found that calcium supplements alleviated headache symptoms in PMS.

Vitamin B2

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), needed for metabolism and energy, has also been found to help in relieving headaches. In a study of severe migraine sufferers, a dose of 400 mg daily for three months helped to prevent recurrence of migraines and headaches in over 50 percent of patients.

The Bottom Line

The nutrients provided by a healthy and varied diet, along with many non-nutrient herbs, help as remedies for preventing and curing headaches. Some may be taken as supplements when a higher dose is needed for an effect.

Aromatherapy Tips

A warm bath will often relieve a headache resulting from tense muscles. Add 10 drops each of lavender and lemon balm oil to bath water and relax for 20 minutes.

Rub a few drops of lavender or peppermint oil on temples and forehead to bring fast relief. Do not use on broken skin and keep away from eyes.

What Causes Headaches?

The American Council on Headaches (ACHE) estimates that nearly every person suffers at least one headache a year, and that for 45 million sufferers, headaches are long-lasting and intense. Among primary headaches (those that are not due to an underlying disease), tension headaches are the most common. They’re triggered by stress, worry, fatigue, noise, eye strain, anxiety, sinus trouble and the onset of the menstrual period.

Certain foods substances are sometimes at fault in causing headaches including monosodium glutamate (MSG), used to flavour Asian dishes, certain yellow cheeses and some alcoholic drinks. Migraine headaches often occur in families and are still a mystery to the medical profession both in how and when they occur.

About the Author

Carmia Borek, PhD, is a research professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston and the author of Maximize our Healthspan With Antioxidants: The Baby Boomerâ??s Guide (Keats Publishing, 1995).