Banish Headaches with Botanicals

Man with headache

Scientists classify headaches into three major categories: primary, secondary, and cranial neuralgias. Headache sufferers may also classify them into three categories: nasty, nastier, and with a nod to Bruce Springsteen, “freight train running through the middle of my head.”

Primary headaches include migraines, tension headaches (the most common type, brought on by physical or emotional stress and experienced by as much as 90 percent of adults), cluster headaches, as well as others.

For the most common type—tension headaches triggered by stress—the most obvious answer is perhaps the best one: Relax. 

Yoga, meditation, and other mind/body techniques can help, but they’re not always practical in the middle of a busy day.

Botanical Headache Relief

Here are some herbal approaches to subduing migraines and other forms of primary headaches. In consultation with your health practitioner, find an herb that works for you and tell your headaches to hit the highway:

  • Butterbur

    Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) is sometimes called purple butterbur or sweet coltsfoot. Some studies have shown it to be effective in reducing the frequency of migraine headaches by as much as 50 to 60 percent after taking a standardized butterbur extract.

  • Feverfew

    Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) has been shown to reduce frequency of migraines. A German study found that migraine sufferers given a CO2-based extract of feverfew had significantly fewer migraine headaches after taking this extract 3 times a day for 16 weeks.

    Other research has shown that carbon dioxide extract of feverfew decreased the frequency of migraine attacks from 4.76 per month to 1.9 per month.

    Other research describes a three-month trial in which a combination of feverfew with magnesium and vitamin B2 provided a 50 percent decrease in migraine attacks.

  • White Willow

    White willow (Salix alba) dates as far as back as 400 BC, when Hippocrates touted the pain-relieving effects of willow bark. Some 2,200 years later, Henri Leroux, a French pharmacist, managed to crystallize the extract (salicin) leading to the invention of salicylic acid, commonly known today as aspirin.

    Studies show that willow can be as effective as aspirin for relieving pain.

    For some people, it’s less likely to produce gastrointestinal side effects such as upset stomach.

  • Peppermint

    Peppermint (Mentha piperita) essential oil has been shown to provide relief from headaches. One study showed a significant reduction in reducing or eliminating headache pain altogether when a peppermint solution was applied to the forehead, helping tense muscles to relax and release their painful grip.

    Mix essential oils with a vegetable-based carrier oil before applying them directly to the skin.

Click to See Our Sources

“Cutaneous Application of Menthol 10 Percent Solution as an Abortive Treatment of Migraine . . .” by A. Borhani Haghighi et al., Int J Clin Pract, 3/10

The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine by Brigitte Mars, AHG ($19.95, Basic Health, 2007)

“Efficacy and Safety of 6.25 mg T.I.D. Feverfew CO2-Extract . . .” by H. C. Diener et al., Cephalagia, 11/05

“Feverfew,”, 2010

“Jamaica Dogwood,”, 2010

“Willow Bark,”, 2010

“Headache” by Benjamin C. Wedro, MD, FAAEM,, 9/30/08

“Petasites hybridus Root (Butterbur) Is an Effective Preventive Treatment for Migraine” by R. B. Lipton et al., Neurology, 12/28/04

“Standardized Butterbur Extract for Migraine Treatment: A Clinical Overview” by Don Brown, ND, HerbClip, 10/31/03


Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer and editor with a yen for adventure that fuels his work and his life.