Pain is an enormous subject to discuss, most of us get headaches at times and there are so many different causes and types of headaches that looking at this on its own leads to vast discussion. When someone presents with a headache you need to be looking at the person as a whole; their lifestyle, their diet, their worries, their physical health. I have looked at a variety of causes, suggestions for treatments and some herbs that could help.
With severe or recurring headaches a consultation with a doctor is required, but for tension headaches herbs or natural remedies can be used. Causes of tension headaches include stress, low blood sugar, hormonal imbalances, liver problems, anaemia, eye strain, sinus problems, digestive problems, allergies, poor posture, loud noise, depression, anger, and emotional or psychological pressure.
In times of stress, we produce adrenaline which stimulates the body into using its stock of glucose ready for fight or flight. As glucose is used up we become tired & can get headaches, eating sweets or chocolate doesn’t usually help. If the stress is an on-going problem then ways to manage or avoid it need to be found. Relaxation, meditation or gentle exercise can help, as can complementary therapies such as aromatherapy or relaxation. Exercise releases endorphins which are the body’s natural pain killers. From a herbal view point herbs which are relaxing or nervine could help as well as herbs for pain.
Hormone imbalances can lead to headaches and Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) often prescribed for menopausal symptoms can actually have headaches as a side effect. If progesterone levels are stabilised then menopausal symptoms may not occur. Susun Weed says women may experience headaches for first time during the menopause due to all the changes occurring in hormones; feelings of fatigue and stress and the experience of Kundalini moving into the crown chakra area. She says rubbing lavender and chamomile oils between the hands to warm and placing them on the area of the headache can help and that Black cohosh root tincture or fresh willow leaf vinegar will ease headaches due to the methyl salicylate. 10 drops of tincture or 1 teaspoon of vinegar is equivalent to 2 aspirin.
Pre-menstrual tension (PMT), again involving hormone changes, can bring on headaches, taking herbal teas instead of tea or coffee is advised as caffeine reduces the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Increase fresh fruit and vegetables, cut out sugar, reduce red meat and salt, exercise and relax. Herbs to help with hormone imbalances can be taken in tea, chamomile is useful when started the day before symptoms are expected to start, one cup three times a day. Evening primrose oil can help, start taking ten days before a period is due.
Liver problems give symptoms including headaches. Preventative measures include a healthy diet. Vegetable juices for liver cleansing include carrot, celery and beetroot. Herbs to support the liver include dandelion, burdock, artichoke, fennel, calendula, milk thistle and ginger.
Anaemia can lead to you feeling dizzy, tired, having headaches and palpitations you need to see a doctor if this is suspected. If you have iron deficient anaemia then eat iron rich food such as kelp, dark green leafy vegetables, dandelion leaves, parsley, nettles, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds, strawberries, nuts and brewer’s yeast. Vitamin C helps with iron absorption and is in citrus fruit, blackcurrants, green peppers and potatoes. B12 which helps with red blood cell production can be low in vegetarians as occurs mainly in meat and dairy products, it is in fortified cereals and yeast products such as marmite but not in any herbs.
Eye strain can cause headaches and may be remedied by getting an eyesight test and having correct glasses if required and taking breaks from computers or fine work. There is a homeopathic remedy for eye strain called Ruta Graveolens.
Headaches can be caused by blocked sinuses, giving pain around the nose, eyes and front of face that may get worse as the day progresses or when bending or coughing. These headaches are caused by allergies, clogged sinus ducts and infections. Eliminating mucous forming foods from the diet such as dairy can help as can eating garlic, onions and horseradish which can all be added to cider vinegar to make Fire Cider Vinegar. Herbs to release blocked mucous and reduce inflammation include elderflower, Echinacea, marshmallow, ginger and peppermint. Some people have good results with reflexology.
Poor posture can cause headaches by creating muscle tension around the head and shoulders, the Alexander technique can be useful with correcting this.
Diet can be linked to headaches in several ways, not eating regularly could lead to a headache from hypoglycaemia and vitamin or mineral deficiency could contribute if there are low potassium levels or B2 deficiency. Chemicals in processed foods such as Aspartame, MSG and nitrates are linked to headaches; cheese and red wine can be triggers, as can smoking.
Mothernature.com state that long term use of commercial pain killers such as codeine and ibuprofen can be a cause of headaches rather than a cure. They state that the New England Center for Headache took people with chronic headaches off their pain killers two-thirds had fewer headaches by the end of the month.
Herbs to Help Headaches
Basil – Matthew Wood indicates this for “headaches associated with cold, indigestion, nervous tension”.
Burdock – this is a liver herb which can help with detoxification.
Chamomile – is a relaxant and painkilling and can be used at the first sign of pain (Anne McIntyre)
Dandelion – another herb to help the liver, eating a few flowers often relieves a headache (Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal).
Evening primrose oil – is used in hormone imbalance.
Feverfew – is often used to prevent headaches and is indicated for “headache and migraine from congestion of blood to the head, before the period; forehead full, pounding, throbbing, often involving the left eye and left temple; temple hot to the hand.” (Matthew Wood) Feverfew is also a good choice for the treatment of migraines and other vascular headaches. In his 1772 Family Herbal, John Hill stated, "In the worst headache, this herb exceeds whatever else is known." The City of London Migraine Clinic found that almost 75 per cent of those with migraines who took feverfew had fewer, or at least less severe, headaches. In a study for the Department of Medicine and Haematology at City Hospital in Nottingham, people who experience many headaches ate fresh feverfew leaves for three months resulting in less severe headaches and fewer symptoms and an increased feeling of well-being (mothernature.com)
Ginger tea - Researchers believe it helps by relaxing the blood vessels in the head and diminishing swelling in the brain. It also activates natural opiates in the brain that relieve pain, and it reduces prostaglandins, which are responsible for causing inflammation (mother nature.com) Kiva Rose uses it for headaches from colds and viruses, headaches caused by circulatory congestion and cold, stuck sinus infections.
Guelder rose, cramp bark – the bark tincture is used as an analgesic.
Hops - are used as they are relaxing and painkilling (Ann McIntyre) and are recommended for nervous and occipital headaches by Matthew Wood.
Lady’s mantle - 10-25 drops of fresh herb tincture can be used several times a day for menopause headaches (Susun Weed).
Lavender – relieves stress and depression and is anti-inflammatory. A tincture of lavender called Palsy Drops was recognized as an effective herbal treatment in the British Pharmacopoeia for more than 200 years. Until the 1940s, physicians used this tincture to relieve muscle spasms, nervousness and headaches (mothernature.com) Kiva Rose describes lavender as a great overall headache remedy that works for tension and neck tweaks and even for hormonally caused headaches.
Linden tea - In the British Herb Pharmacopoeia, linden is listed as a sedative for treating nervous tension and headaches. Researchers suspect that this herb heals migraines (and other vascular headaches) by improving blood circulation (mothernature.com)
Meadowsweet – is anti-inflammatory and contains natural salicylate salts. Aspirin is synthesised acetylsalicylic acid which can be burning to the stomach and cause ulcers but meadowsweet is soothing for heartburn, acidity and ulcers, a case, says Richard Mabey where “the plant is greater than the sum of its constituent parts”.
Milk thistle – is a herb which supports the liver.
Mint tea – is used for headaches, including those associated with digestive tension (Matthew Wood).
Rosemary – is good for mental fatigue, vision impairment, headaches and depression (Chris Thomas and Diane Baker) and as a preventative (Ann McIntyre). For headaches associated with “weak liver function” and “from eyestrain, mental strain, long distance driving” use the oil externally” (Matthew Wood)
Skullcap – relaxes spasms and headaches. “A specific for those I’m so tense I can’t breathe kind of headaches, where your neck is spasming and you’re getting ready to scream at the next person who speaks to you. Other indicators are if you grind your teeth (asleep or awake) or have lots of jaw tension pain or find that your fists are constantly clenched” (Kiva Rose)
Vervain – Susun Weed says that a tincture of fresh flowers, 20-40 drops before bed, can be used in strengthening nerves, insomnia, depression, nervous exhaustion, headaches and migraines, Bruton-Seal and Seal use the tincture for menstrual headaches. “My favorite for disorienting PMS or neck tension headaches… when it’s really called for, you only need a very small dose of the fresh plant tincture. In fact, I find that if I take more than I need, it will actually aggravate the tension (anyone else found this?) The tincture works so well that I’ll often get shivers from the rapid release of my neck muscles, makes me feel like a limp fish (in a happy way)” (Kiva Rose).
Wood Betony – can be used as a preventative (Ann McIntyre) and for the brain, head and nervous system, weak digestion and “headache with pain causing hysteria” (Matthew Wood). Betony is an age old headache remedy indicated for headaches and facial pain, being mildly sedative; it relieves stress and nervous tension. It is a mildly bitter tonic and stimulates the digestive system and the liver, all of which contributes to easing headache pain (home herb garden).
The essential oils of lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus and rosemary can be useful for headaches. Soaking feet in a cool foot bath with rosemary oil can help with menopausal headaches (Susun Weed). 1or 2 drops of mint or lavender in a carrier (if too strong mint will cause headaches and lavender can stimulate) massaged into the temples can help. In a 1994 study on headaches, the essential oils of peppermint and eucalyptus were shown to relax both mind and muscles. When these herbs were diluted in alcohol, then sponged on the foreheads of study participants, both oils greatly reduced sensitivity to headaches (mothernature.com)