Migraine - Herbs in the Treatment of Migraine Headaches

Herbs in the Treatment of Migraine Headaches

Herbs in the Treatment of Migraine Headaches

Migraines are severe headaches, which can be linked to food sensitivity, pollutants, menstrual cycle, or stress. It is associated with changes in tensions within the arteries of the brain. Untreated symptoms may last for a few minutes or several days.

Among the herbs known to have positive effects on Migraines is " Feverfew " , which has a nice story. The wife of Britain's National Coal Board suffered chronic migraines. " A miner heard about her problem and told her he'd had the same problem, but found relief when he began chewing feverfew leaves every day. After 14 months of doing the same thing, the woman was free of her searing headaches. "

Dr. E. Stewart Johnson of the City of London Migraine Clinic. He tried the idea with ten other patients, all of whom felt similar relief.

Dr. Johnson then did a test - feverfew vs. placebo - and the feverfew significantly outperformed the placebo. He did another test and concluded the feverfew cut migraines by 24%. feverfew is available is capsules and tablets; use as directed. Combine with other tranquilizers and analgesics, such as valerian or Jamaican dogwood tincture, taking up to 20 drops three times a day. Caution: avoid iftaking warfarin; side effects of eating leaves can include mouth ulcers.

Lavender is a sedative; analgesic with anti-spasmodic action; coooling, bitter remedy useful for " hot " migraines. Dilute 10 drops of lavender oil in 25 ml carrier oil and massage into the temples at the first hint of symptoms; take an infusion made from the flowers. After the massage, drink an infusion of lavender flower and vervain (total of 30 g herb to 500 ml water) in half-cup doses. Caution - avoid high doses in pregnancy.

Jamaican Dogwood is a sedative and anodyne; useful for pain associated with nervous tension. Take up to 2 ml. tincture three times a day, or take a decoction made with 10 g to 750 ml. water.

Excerpts from " Back to Eden " by Jethro Kloss/ " The Healing Herbs " by Michael Castleman/'The Complete Medicinal Herbal " by penelope Ody/ " The New Holistic Herbal " by David Hoffmann.

What is a migraine

The word " Migraine " is derived from the classical Latin meaning " Hermi " or " half " and " Cranium " which means " skull " ie. half skull pain. It describes the definite features and the progression of symptoms well known to migraine sufferers of periodic pain usually on one side of the upper part of the head.

Migraine affects women more than men (in a ratio of about 3:2) and in 75% of people the first attack occurs before the age of 20 years old. At least 90% of the population will have had an attack by the age of 40 years.

The attacks may vary in frequency from 1-2 per week to a few occurrences scattered over a lifetime and, interestingly, migraine is responsible for an estimated 18 million days of lost work productivity and an economic cost of about 600-740 m per year.

What are the typical symptoms

Migraine can occur in one of a number of forms including the " classical " and " common " migraines.

The classical form begins within 24 hours of the headache and consists of the so-called " prodromal " or " warning " phase characterised by odd mood and behaviour changes such as yawning, lethargy, craving for food or depression. This is soon followed by the " aura " which affects the vision.

Migraine sufferers talk about the flashing lights or zigzag lines and jig-saw appearances across the field of vision. It is quite common for people to experience a slow spread of numbness and tingling of one or both hands or more typically in the face, lips or tongue. Weakness, clumsiness and, occasionally a total loss of use of a limb may occur ( " hemiplegic " migraine).

The headache usually starts on waking or in the early part of the day. Typically, it can be felt as a throbbing or pulsating pain or alternatively as a dull ache or a " tight band " around the head.

Other symptoms such as nausea and vomiting often occur which may relieve the pain. Often bright light and loud noises aggravate the symptoms causing the patient to lie down in a dark room. Having a sleep will sometimes bring the headache to an end. Most attacks end after 24-48 hours.

In so called " common " migraine there is little or no warning and the headache itself is the first symptom - which may be just as severe as in the classical type. Common migraine occurs more often than the classical form - perhaps 2-3 times per week and is often related to stress.

What happens during a migraine

It is not known for certain what exactly happens during a migraine. Some factor (possibly a brain chemical substance) makes the blood vessels around the brain narrow (constrict). This is thought to produce the aura and the symptoms described depending upon the particular area of the brain affected. The vessels then open up (or dilate) and this causes the headache because of the stretching of sensitive nerves situated in the walls of the blood vessels around the head.

Involvement of other parts of the brain which control mood may explain the odd behaviour and food cravings described earlier.

What causes migraine

Broadly speaking, any food or chemical can trigger a reaction and the sensitivity to those triggers varies from person to person. However, four major chemical substances have been identified and should be avoided

  • Tyramine - found in liver, nuts, red wine, aged cheese, bananas and sour cream
  • phenylethylamine - found in chocolate
  • Nitrates and nitrites - found in cured meats, bacon and hot dogs. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) - a meat tenderiser and flavour enhancer
  • Caffeine - found in beverages

Most well known as a migraine trigger are a variety of foods including the following:

  • Chocolate, cocoa, alcohol, diet drinks containing aspartame - these all contain caffeine
  • Meat, fish, poultry - especially pickled and preserved
  • Dairy products, including all cheeses, salad dressing and mayonnaise
  • Fruits - such as raisins, plumbs, figs, papaya, passion fruit
  • pizza, cheese sauce, foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG) used to enhance flavouring in soups

The major substance which causes the problem is a chemical called an " amine " that causes the blood vessels to expand leading to headache pain. Amines are found in ripened cheeses, chocolate and citrus fruits. Caffeine on the other hand contracts the vessels but when the amount of caffeine is reduced the blood vessels expand and so causes headache.

Other common triggers include the oral contraceptive, hormone replacement treatment, and menstruation. This suggests that migraine may be under the influence of hormones although no direct proof exists.

Worry, hunger, lack of sleep and climatic or environmental changes may spark off an attack when deeper areas of the brain are involved.

Because headache may be associated with other conditions, it is wise to be cautious. Beware of any extremely severe headache lasting 24 hours or more worse in the early morning or accompanied by severe neck stiffness or blurred vision.

More commonly, tension headache in association with stress or depression is found to be the alternative diagnosis.

If you are in any doubt of unusual symptoms do not hestitate to contact and discuss them with your Gp.

What treatments are available

For an acute attack:

If you feel an attack coming on start treatment therapy ahead of the attack. This consists of simple pain killers (paracetamol, codeine with or without treatment for the nausea such as metoclopramide). These can be purchased over the counter as registered brands such as Migraleve or paramax tablets.

Stop all activity and lie down in a darkened room until the symptoms settle.

Other drugs are available such as ergotamine and the newer drug sumatriptan work by increasing a chemical found in the brain called serotonin and so contracts the blood vessels but must be used under certain medical supervision.

Ergotamine causes contraction of the blood vessels in the skin and circulatory problems can follow if used in excess. If used more than twice per week habituation is a real risk. Sumatriptan in tablet form provides relief in 70% of cases within 2 hours and is also effective in second and third attacks.

For preventing an attack:

Avoid any substance or food thought to be a trigger factor. Try to reduce stress levels. Alternative therapy such as hypnosis, acupuncture, and a chiropractor may be helpful.

preventive (prophylactic) treatments are useful for patients having two or more attacks per month. Beta blockers (eg. propranolol) and other drugs which affect the size of blood vessels (by reducing serotonin) are recommended by doctors - usually for 3-6 months.

Where can I get more information

Apart from contacting your own Gp the following organisations may be of help:

Migraine Action Association
178a High Road
KT14 7ED
Telephone: 01932 352468

The Migraine Trust
Mrs Ann Rush
45 Great Ormond Street
Telephone: 020 7831 4818

Managing Migraine
p O Box 21
GU17 2br
Telephone: 08457 321 282


  1. lipTON, S. (1995) Migraine. Liverpool, The pain Relief Foundation
  2. pEARCE, J.M.S (1996) Headaches. Medicine, 24(4) p.4
  3. brUCKENHEIM, A.H. (1993) Dietary causes of migraine headaches. Family Dr (CD Rom) Oregon, (USA) Tribune Media Services and Creative Multimedia
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