7 Natural Headache Remedies That Work

These simple, everyday tweaks may help you ease the pain.

Black man does yoga in a sunny room

Updated on May 31, 2023.

If you’re all too familiar with the dull throb or stabbing pain of a headache, you’re not alone. Headaches are very common. In fact, nearly half of adults worldwide have experienced one (or more) within the past year.

Headaches come in several forms, with the most common ones falling into a few categories:

  • Tension headaches, the most common type, are often linked to stress. They’re marked by pain on both sides of the head, sometimes described as a tight band around the temples. They can last for a few hours or up to several days.
  • Cluster headaches, which are less common, are characterized by head pain with signs and symptoms on the same side of the head as the ache. These include drooping of the eyelid, narrowing of the pupil, redness of the white part of the eye, and runny nose. The pain typically lasts from 15 to 180 minutes. The pain may subside but then return in clusters of up to eight attacks per day for a period of days, weeks, and even months.
  • Migraine headaches typically occur on one side of the head. The pain is often described as pulsing or throbbing. Additional symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to lights and sounds.

When symptoms strike, a headache sends most people straight to the medicine cabinet. But pills aren’t the only solution. These natural approaches may help you find relief—or even avoid headache pain in the first place.

Modify your diet

If headaches are a regular occurrence, try adding foods to your diet that are rich in magnesium (including green vegetables and whole grains) and riboflavin, also known as vitamin B2 (found in low-fat dairy and eggs). Some evidence suggests that these nutrients may help prevent or ease headache pain, but more research is needed to confirm their benefit.

A review of studies published in 2019 in The Journal of Headache and Pain, meanwhile, suggests that boosting intake of omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish like salmon or in fish oil supplements, may also help keep headaches at bay.

It’s also a good move to limit or eliminate known migraine trigger foods—such as caffeine, alcohol, red wine, chocolate, and aged cheeses—from your diet. A good rule of thumb is to be sure your overall diet is healthy and balanced, with a good mix of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats from fish and vegetable sources.

Stay hydrated

Not drinking enough water can bring on a headache or migraine. If dehydration is the cause of your head pain, research has shown that increasing your fluid intake can help you find relief within 30 minutes to 3 hours. Staying hydrated may also help you avoid headaches to begin with.

You may be familiar with the guideline of drinking 8 cups of water each day, but different people have different water requirements depending on age, physical condition, climate, health issues, and many other factors. Check with your healthcare provider (HCP) about a hydration habit that makes sense for you.

Use heat or cold therapy

Depending on the type of headache you get, you may find relief by using a heat pack or cold compress. People who get migraines tend to prefer cold therapy, while heat may be more beneficial for tension headaches.

Use heat or cold in moderation, for no more than 15 minutes at a time, a few times a day. Place a towel or cloth between the source and your skin, and make sure you don’t fall asleep with any type of heating pad on.

Grab a yoga mat

Yoga is thought to help ease headaches by relieving stress, one of the major causes of headache pain. A 2019 review of research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine suggests that yoga can help reduce the frequency, intensity, and duration of tension headaches. Sign up for a weekly yoga class in your neighborhood or try yoga workouts you can do at home.

Talk to your HCP about an herbal remedy

Some herbs may be an effective alternative or complement to prescription or over-the-counter pain relief:

  • Ginger may help soothe migraine symptoms by working as an anti-inflammatory. One 2013 study suggested that the use of ginger powder may be just as effective as a commonly prescribed anti-inflammatory drug called sumatriptan in treating migraine pain. A separate study published in the journal Cephalalgia in 2019 found that ginger may be a beneficial addition for treating migraine attacks, though it’s been less promising in studies in preventing migraines.
  • Peppermint oil, rubbed onto the temples and forehead, may also provide relief from headaches. Its anti-inflammatory properties can help soothe the pain and ease the tight muscles associated with tension headaches.

Before you try any herbal remedies, alternative treatments, or over-the-counter medications, speak with your healthcare provider (HCP) to discuss any potential side effects or harmful interactions they may have with other medications you may be taking. Ginger, for example, may lower blood sugar levels and raise blood pressure. Many herbals and over-the-counter medications can interact with blood-thinning medications, rendering them less effective at preventing blood clots.

Explore acupuncture

The small, thin needles used in this ancient form of Chinese medicine may offer benefits when it comes to migraine relief. A 2020 review of studies published in Neurology and Therapy found that acupuncture may help reduce the frequency and duration of migraines without the side effects of medication. Further research is needed to determine how to incorporate acupuncture effectively into an overall migraine treatment plan.

Get better sleep

Studies have found that not getting enough sleep or having poor sleep habits can trigger migraines and increase the frequency of tension headaches. You probably know to aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. You can help make shut-eye a priority by building good sleep habits like these:

  • Stick to a consistent sleep-wake schedule. Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning, even on weekends and holidays.
  • Establish a nightly wind-down routine. Relax by reading a book, listening to soft music, or taking a warm bath before bed.
  • Create a sleep-inducing environment. Keep your bedroom cool and dark, use it only for sleep and sex, and keep digital devices out.
  • Avoid things that can keep you up at night. That includes large meals, caffeine or alcohol, and those hard-to-put-down devices.
  • Be mindful of your daytime routine. Habits like staying physically active, getting sunlight exposure, and avoiding naps during the day can help ensure a better night’s rest.

If you have persistent headaches that are interfering with your day-to-day life, start by talking to your HCP. Together, you can come up with a plan to diagnose any potential underlying issues, eliminate remaining headache triggers, and discuss your best options for treatment. 

Correction: A previous version of this article cited research from 2011 indicating that taking feverfew may reduce the severity and duration of a migraine. This line has been removed, based on a 2015 Cochrane review indicating low-quality evidence for the efficacy of feverfew for migraine relief.

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