Headaches are an all-too-common annoyance. At best, they can make even simple daily tasks more challenging. At worst, they can leave you curled up in bed for hours.
The good news is that if you're not a fan of taking Tylenol on a regular basis, there are plenty of natural remedies for headaches, including some small lifestyle changes, certain foods and hot or cold therapy.
Here are 15 medication-free ways to get rid of a headache (or stop it from coming on in the first place).
1. Eat Regularly
"This is good advice for everyone, really, but especially for migraine sufferers," says Vernon Williams, MD, board-certified neurologist and director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, California.
Don't skip meals, and add in a snack or two throughout your day so you don't go more than a couple hours without eating. This way, you won't experience those big drops in blood sugar that can bring on an achy head, Dr. Williams says.
Indeed, having regular daily meal times is associated with less frequent migraines, according to the American Migraine Foundation. And the longer you go between meals, the higher your chance of getting a headache.
2. Get More Magnesium
Research shows that people who get headaches have lower levels of magnesium, which is probably why the American Migraine Foundation suggests taking a 400- to 500-milligram supplement of magnesium oxide every day to prevent them.
If you don't want to take a supplement, try adding more foods high in magnesium to your diet, including:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Black and lima beans
- Quinoa and brown rice
- Dark chocolate
3. Sip Some Ginger Tea
Ginger is most often recommended as a way of easing digestion and reducing nausea, but it may also help with migraines. A November 2020 meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that eating ginger was a substantial source of headache relief.
The natural root can be used in a variety of dishes (think: ginger chicken) but can also be enjoyed as a sweet, herbal tea. To make it at home, peel and thinly slice a 1-inch piece of ginger and add it to a saucepan with a cup of water. Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer it for five to 10 minutes. Strain the tea and serve it with a bit of honey and a slice of lemon.
4. Drink Plenty of Water
Sometimes the simplest solution is the one that's easiest to forget. According to Dr. Williams, dehydration is a major "migraine catalyst," so drinking a glass of water might be enough to ease the pain.
The American Migraine Foundation suggests drinking water throughout the day instead of soda, juice or other sugary drinks. A good general guideline is to aim to drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, for example, try to guzzle about 75 ounces (or just over 9 cups) daily.
5. Get Enough Sleep
It often seems like getting a good night of shut-eye is the solution to many ailments, but this is especially true when it comes to headaches.
"Lack of sleep or disordered sleep are common headache triggers," Dr. Williams says. "Maintaining a regular sleep schedule and getting enough have been shown to help lessen the headache occurrences and severity for many sufferers."
For the record, most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Easier said than done sometimes, though, right? But there are a few things you can do to get more zzzs in your life: Start with this seven-day kickstart plan.
6. Do Some Yoga
"Research indicates that regular, moderate aerobic exercise can reduce the severity, duration and in some cases the number of migraines people experience," Dr. Williams says. But one form of exercise that might be especially beneficial is yoga.
Yoga has been shown to reduce stress, and stress is one cause of migraines. One May 2020 study in Neurology found that people who completed a three-month yoga routine showed greater improvements in headache relief than those who used medication alone.
If you're new to the practice, you might want to start with some simple poses that focus on breathing, such as Child's Pose or Cat Cow:
- Start by kneeling on a mat or soft surface.
- Place your hands on the mat, then slowly push your bottom back onto your heels.
- With your arms stretched out in front of you, palms on the mat, lower your forehead to the mat so your chest and abdomen are against your upper thighs (you can spread your knees if that's more comfortable).
- Hold for 30 seconds or as long as feels good to you.
- Start on all fours with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders.
- Draw your navel in toward your spine and arch your back like a cat.
- Starting at your tailbone, begin to extend your spine, vertebrae by vertebrae, until you are in a swayback position.
- Continue slowly alternating between the two.
7. Limit Screen Time
Research has shown that too much screen time can cause neck tension and interfere with sleep, both of which are common causes of headaches. This is particularly bad news because a recent report by the National Headache Foundation says that nearly a third of us are experiencing five or more additional hours of screen time since we began sheltering in place due to the pandemic.
Dr. Williams recommends taking frequent breaks from your computer and smartphone screens to give your eyes a rest. And while you may not be able to do much about your screen time during work hours, try to cut down on time spent in front of the TV or looking at your phone after work hours, and especially during the hour or two before bed.
8. Drink Less Alcohol
A night of overindulging can lead to a mind-numbing migraine in the morning. One April 2020 study in Annals of Medicine found that drinking five or more servings of alcohol made you twice as likely to suffer from a headache the following day. There was no association with one or two servings, but if you're a heavy drinker, it's just one more reason to cut back on the booze.
9. Don’t Go Cold Turkey on Caffeine
If you've recently cut back on your coffee consumption or quit java altogether, caffeine withdrawal might be the culprit behind your headaches.
"Caffeine withdrawal is a common cause of headaches and occurs in individuals who regularly drink more than five cups of coffee a day and suddenly stop their caffeine intake," says Michael Richardson, MD, a primary care doctor at One Medical in Boston, Massachusetts.
Instead of abstaining entirely, Dr. Richardson recommends swapping out that morning cappuccino for a cup of green tea (which has less caffeine) in order to wean yourself off slowly. Here are three more tips to help you cut back without the painful side effects.
10. Try Acupuncture
This traditional Chinese medicinal practice — which involves placing tiny needles at strategic points on the body — has been shown to reduce a wide variety of pain. An April 2017 study in JAMA Internal Medicine showed a significant reduction in migraine attacks following a 24-week trial.
So if you've always wanted to give acupuncture a try, now might be the time.
11. Use Essential Oils
Some research shows that certain essential oils are helpful in combating head pain. One April 2012 placebo-controlled trial in European Neurology found sniffing lavender oil to be a very effective way to manage migraine headaches.
Other scents that may help include peppermint, rosemary, eucalyptus and chamomile.
To use essential oils to relieve a headache, you can put them in a diffuser, place them in a pendant around your neck or add a few drops to an ounce of coconut oil and rub it into your temples.
12. Apply a Cold Compress
It might seem a little old-school, but some research — including a July 2013 randomized controlled trial in Hawaii Journal of Medicine & Public Health — has shown that cold therapy can be a good way to ease a headache.
Instead of wrapping up ice in a bag and lying still while you try to balance it on your forehead, it might be worthwhile to invest in a disposable gel cooling patch (like Be Koool Gel Sheets) or compression cold wrap headband (like the Headache Hat from Splashe) to pull out of the fridge as needed.
13. Apply a Warm Compress
If cold therapy doesn't do the trick, try changing the temperature. A warm compress relaxes the muscles around the temple and scalp and stimulates blood flow around the area, which is helpful for a tension headache, per the Mayo Clinic.
Once again, buying a heating pad or hot pack (like Dr. Jeff's Hot + Cold Pain Relief Pack) will most likely get you more long-lasting results than filling a bottle with hot water, and it's safer. A warm bath or shower could help, too.
14. Take B2 Vitamins
There's a limited amount of research indicating that vitamin B2, or riboflavin, can help with migraines. One December 2015 review in Vitamin and Nutrition Research did conclude that B2 vitamins "play a positive role in reducing the frequency and duration of migraine attacks with no serious side effects." The dose for adults was typically 400 mg daily.
These vitamins can also serve as healthy antioxidants that help increase your energy levels, so it might be worth giving them a shot. Just make sure to talk to your doctor first, and go with a vitamin brand you can trust.
Vitamin B2 is also naturally found in the following foods, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health:
- Dairy products, including milk, yogurt and cheese
- Chicken breast
- Lean beef and pork
15. Keep a Journal
It sounds strange, but one of the best natural remedies for headaches is to figure out what's causing them. One way to do this is to keep a journal, Dr. Williams suggests.
"When a headache comes on, write down what you did that day or the day before that might have triggered it," he says. "After a few entries, you may begin to see a pattern emerge that will help you stop a headache in its tracks next time. It's worth the effort."
Is This an Emergency?
- American Migraine Foundation: "Migraine and Diet"
- American Migraine Foundation: "Magnesium"
- The American Journal of Emergency Medicine: "The efficacy of ginger for the treatment of migraine: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Much Sleep Do I Need?"
- National Headache Foundation: "Report: Screen Time and Neurological Symptoms Rising Due to COVID-19"
- Annals of Medicine: "Prospective cohort study of daily alcoholic beverage intake as a potential trigger of headaches among adults with episodic migraine"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "The Long-term Effect of Acupuncture for Migraine Prophylaxis"
- European Neurology: "Lavender essential oil in the treatment of migraine headache: a placebo-controlled clinical trial"
- Hawaii Journal of Medicine & Public Health: "Randomized Controlled Trial: Targeted Neck Cooling in the Treatment of the Migraine Patient"
- Mayo Clinic: "Migraines: Simple steps to head off the pain"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Riboflavin – Vitamin B2"