21 Natural Remedies To Prevent and Treat Headaches

Headaches can range from nagging to debilitating. Here are 21 tips, tricks, and natural remedies to help you head off that ache.

Headaches strike in different ways. They range from slightly uncomfortable to debilitatingly painful. At one point, you've probably experienced any variation of throbbing, pulsing, burning, or disorienting headache pain. Some headaches are acute or periodic, while others are chronic and longer-lasting because several kinds of headaches exist.

It's important to understand that a headache can take on several forms, frequencies, and severities—especially if you are trying to prevent or cure a headache already wreaking havoc. If your headaches are so frequent and severe that you find yourself unable to work or complete day-to-day activities, you should consider talking to a healthcare provider to fully understand what it is you're dealing with.

That being said, there are plenty of simple, natural remedies for treating your everyday headache. Read on to learn how to better prevent and treat headaches—naturally!

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Headaches are often a sign that your body needs a break, said Elizabeth Loder, MD, MPH, chief of the headache and pain division at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and past President of the American Headache Society.

"Many people are very busy and are reluctant to take the time, but if you consider the tradeoff of spending 10 minutes to close the blinds, lie down, and relax when you feel a headache forming, that might be better use of your time than being incapacitated later on after it gets worse," Dr. Loder said.

Mark W. Green, MD, emeritus director of the Center for Headache and Pain Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, agreed. Dr. Green recommended lying down in a dark, well-ventilated room, and, if you can, try to sleep for an hour or so. "Rather than fighting sleep and making things worse, this can be a great treatment."

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Eat Small, Frequent Meals

If you haven't eaten anything in a while, that aching or fuzzy feeling may result from low blood sugar. In this case, eating something healthy right away could nip the nagging sensation in the bud.

Research published in September 2015 in Nutrients suggested foods rich in the mineral magnesium—such as chia and pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, and black beans—may be especially helpful in alleviating headaches.

In general, Dr. Green advised his headache patients to graze on small meals throughout the day rather than three large ones at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. "This way your blood sugar stays more consistent, and you won't experience those types of crashes."

03 of 21

Ice Your Forehead

Lying down with a chilly, wet washcloth or cold compress over your forehead or eyes may provide temporary relief from a nagging headache, and may even help it disappear completely, Dr. Loder said.

"You can also make little ice popsicles in the freezer and rub the forehead or temples for up to 10 minutes," Dr. Loder said. Many people think ice dulls pain by shrinking blood vessels, but Dr. Loder said in the case of headaches, it's more likely a "counterirritation" effect: "If your brain is paying attention to the cold stimulus, it's not paying attention to the pain."

But regardless of how ice works, Dr. Loder said, it can be a useful and effective ritual for people who have recurring head pain.

04 of 21

Take a Hot Shower

People tend to prefer cold over heat when it comes to topical headache treatments (treatments applied on the body), but sometimes a steamy shower may be just what you need, Dr. Green said.

If your headache is related to a cold or sinus pressure, Dr. Green added, the moist, warm air can clear your nasal passages as well. A September 2016 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that while steam inhalation was not an effective treatment for most sinus symptoms, patients did report it helped their sinus headaches.

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Get a Massage

Massage, one of the most old-fashioned ways to treat a headache, is still one of the most effective, Dr. Loder said. Self-massaging or (if you can afford to) getting a professional massage may provide relief. Some people have also found scalp massagers work well.

"Many people find that gentle pressure on the temples can, at least temporarily, relieve pain," Dr. Loder told Health.

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Try Acupressure

Acupressure is a form of traditional Chinese medicine massage where manual pressure is applied to points on the body called acupoints. Acupressure is designed to balance your flow of energy, or qi.

For headaches, you can try applying pressure to a point on the hand between the thumb and index finger. Squeeze the indentation between the two digits with your opposite hand's thumb and index finger and massage in a circular motion for five minutes, then switch hands.

We need more data to understand if acupressure can relieve headache pain, but a study published in July 2017 in Medicine found that acupressure could at least relieve migraine nausea.

"It's certainly a harmless thing to try, and at the very least it's a distraction from the pain," Dr. Loder said, adding that it may also be helpful to rub ice on this spot for a few minutes.

You could also try acupuncture, though we need more research to confirm its headache-healing benefits. The technique uses small long needles inserted into the skin to stimulate trigger points throughout the body, according to StatPearls.

A review published in April 2016 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews noted that acupuncture could be effective treatment for episodic or chronic tension-type headaches. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says acupuncture is generally considered safe if performed by an "experienced, well-trained practitioner."

07 of 21

Go Easy on the Alcohol

This may be the most obvious of the bunch—at least to anyone who's ever had one too many cocktails and answered for it the next day. Hangover headaches can be a reminder you overdid it. When you drink alcohol, you increase dehydration, which can cause headaches, so be sure to sip water with your alcoholic beverage.

The USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 (DGA) says drinking in moderation means adults of the legal drinking age limit themselves to two drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less in a day for women.

For people who are sensitive to headaches or migraines, however, even just a small amount of alcohol can trigger a painful attack, Dr. Green said.

"Anyone will get a headache if they drink a whole bottle of wine, but there are lots of people who will get a headache just from one glass," Dr. Green said. "For those people, it's all about learning to recognize their triggers and knowing when to stop."

08 of 21

Stay Hydrated

Headache is one of the first signs of dehydration, the process of losing body water. To make sure you're drinking enough fluids, try to consume them throughout the day, rather than just guzzling them down at meal times or during periods of heavy physical activity, Dr. Green suggested.

A study published in July 2021 in Current Pain and Headache Reports found that dehydration alone may cause headaches and worsen headaches related to an underlying condition.

You've probably heard, "drink eight cups of water a day" to stay hydrated. That's a good start, but your water intake should also take into account your age, weight, and daily activity.

According to the National Academy of Medicine, men should consume 15-16 cups of water a day (about 13 cups of that should come from beverages), while women should aim for 11-12 cups (about 9 cups of that should come from beverages).

You can reach your water requirement from sources other than plain water—like low-calorie liquids (tea and skim or low-fat milk, for example) as well as fruits and vegetables. Even moderate coffee consumption contributes to your daily fluid intake; a study published in January 2014 in PLoS One challenged the long-standing theory that moderate caffeine consumption contributed to dehydration.

If you're physically active or live in a warm, humid environment, you'll need to increase your water intake to stay hydrated and stave off headaches.

09 of 21

Get Your Medications Checked

Learning if a medication you're on has a side effect of headache could be key to alleviating your pain. In fact, if you are overusing medication you're taking for your headache, you may be unknowingly worsening your pain. These headaches are called medication-overuse headaches (MOH), but you may also hear them called analgesic rebound headaches, drug-induced headaches, or medication misuse headaches.

In the third edition of the International Classification of Headache Disorders, published in 2018, medications that can be overused—and consequently cause more headaches—include aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), opioids, triptans (commonly used for migraines), sleep medications, and acetaminophen.

If you worry you may be misusing or overusing a medication, talk to a healthcare provider about how to safely stop taking the drug.

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Manage Stress Levels

"Be less stressed" is not always helpful advice, but understanding the effects of stress can be useful. Tension headaches are sometimes called muscle contraction or stress headaches because there may be a link between stress and posture, according to the NIH.

Tension headaches can be sporadic or chronic. They can last from 30 minutes to seven days and famously have a band-like tightening feeling around your head. To put it simply, they're no fun.

"Psychological stress can cause all kinds of physical tension that you may not even be aware of," Dr. Loder explained. Dr. Loder also recommended taking frequent breaks from stressful situations and relaxing with something you enjoy. "It can be yoga, meditation, or a hobby of some sort, like gardening—whatever you find to be calming and that takes your mind off of your worries," Dr. Loder added.

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Have Some Caffeine (But Not Too Much)

"Having a cup of coffee at the first sign of a headache is an old trick because caffeine has a mild [painkilling] effect and can be very useful in the early stages," Dr. Loder said. "But it's important to not overdo it because you can build up a tolerance for it."

Caffeine is a double-edged sword, Dr. Loder explained: If you consume too much, too regularly, you may experience withdrawal on the days you don't get it.

"Keep your regular intake fairly low so that when you need it intermittently, you can pull it out as a secret weapon," Dr. Loder said. "If you're regularly drinking six or seven cups a day, you're kidding yourself if you think an extra one is going to do you any good."

It may be frustrating to hear that caffeine's role in preventing or worsening headaches is still understudied. Based on available studies, a review published in August 2020 in Nutrients concluded that caffeine's role in migraine headaches is "ambiguous."

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Take Computer Breaks

Eyestrain on its own isn't usually a cause of bad headaches, but Dr. Loder suggested spending long hours in front of a computer can make people more susceptible to these headaches.

"It hasn't been well studied, but having talked with many patients, I believe that very prolonged and intense periods of mental concentration can contribute to headaches," Dr. Loder said.

Indeed, "screen headaches," as they're sometimes called, need more research, but a study published in October 2016 in Cephalalgia pointed to a relationship between high levels of screen time and migraines in young adults.

Paying attention to ergonomics (having the right chair, desk, and computer set up) at your workspace can help reduce strain on the neck, Dr. Loder said, and taking frequent breaks—every 30 minutes or so, to stretch and look away from your computer screen—can reduce eyestrain and muscle stiffness.

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Be Careful in the Sun

Heading to the beach on a sunny summer afternoon? Pack plenty of fluids and a beach umbrella if you're prone to migraines. We need more research to understand the exact relationship between sitting in the sun and headaches, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does note that headaches can be symptoms of heat exhaustion.

"Bright sunlight, heat, and dehydration probably all play a role in this type of pain," Dr. Green said. Dr. Green recommended wearing sunglasses and seeking shade—or air conditioning—when you feel yourself getting overheated.

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Exercise Regularly

A vigorous workout while you're in the throes of a bad headache may not be a good idea, and in fact, an increased pulse may make the pressure or the pounding worse, Dr. Green said. This is a type of exertion headache, according to the National Headache Foundation. But during the times you're headache-free, regular exercise is a good way to help you stay that way.

A February 2021 review published in Current Pain and Headache Reports concluded that aerobic exercise—like biking, cross-training, and walking briskly—could help in migraine prevention treatment.

If you suspect stress is either causing or worsening your headaches, yoga may be a nice option for you. A small study published in June 2019 in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education found student participants who completed a six-week yoga and meditation program before finals experienced less stress and anxiety.

However, Dr. Loder recommended taking caution with hot yoga classes if high temperatures are a known trigger for you.

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Spit Out Your Gum

A study published in January 2014 in Pediatric Neurology found that excessive daily gum-chewing could be associated with chronic headaches in children and adolescents.

A 2015 review published in CNS & Neurology Disorders - Drug Targets also noted that while more research is needed, people prone to tension or migraine headaches should limit their gum chewing.

"I'm sure that any sort of prolonged intense muscular contraction in the head or neck region probably could provoke a headache," Dr. Loder said. Dr. Loder's patients often complain about visiting the dentist because keeping their mouths open for so long can give them headaches as well.

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Watch Out for Food Triggers

People who get migraines are often told to avoid certain foods, like aged cheese or cured meats made with preservatives, but there's not a lot of hard evidence behind these claims, Dr. Loder said.

A 2020 review of 43 studies published in Headache assessed diet-related triggers of migraine. It concluded we don't have enough randomized controlled trial data to know the exact relationship between diet and migraines but suggested patients pay attention to what foods may trigger headaches or migraine for them.

"It's a very difficult thing to study because it's hard to disguise from people what they are eating, and their expectations and prior beliefs can play a big role in whether they actually get headaches," Dr. Loder explained. That being said, Dr. Loder encouraged patients to pay attention to their food choices and to look for eating patterns that may be associated with headaches.

"It's different for everyone, and if you find something that works or doesn't work for you, then by all means, do that," Dr. Loder said. If you suspect certain foods are causing your headaches, try eliminating them and then reintroducing them to your diet one at a time.

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Avoid Highly Stimulating Situations

Another common cause of headaches is anything too bright, fast, or flashy, Dr. Loder said: "Loud noise, busy patterns, strong perfumes, watching an action movie in a dark theater—these are all pretty well-known headache triggers for some people."

Your best bet is to try to avoid these situations when possible.

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Ride in the Front Seat

Headaches often go along with motion sickness, according to the CDC—especially for people who are prone to queasiness or migraines. And you don't have to be in a boat or on an airplane, Dr. Loder said. Car sickness commonly causes headaches too.

A review published in 2013 in Pharmacology noted that scopolamine and antihistamines, like Dramamine, are the most effective medications available to treat motion sickness symptoms like nausea and vomiting.

Something as simple as riding in the front seat so you have a good view of the road may also prevent motion sickness, according to an overview published in 2019 in Drugs in Context.

Try not to read or watch videos while riding in a car either, Dr. Loder said. This causes an internal disagreement between your eyes and your ears, which can disrupt balance and cause nausea and headaches.

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Keep a Regular Schedule

"Migraines don't like change, and it's often when you've deviated from your normal routine that they tend to occur," Dr. Green said.

One of the most common triggers, in fact, is getting too little sleep, based on a study published in April 2016 in Medicine. Don't go too far in the other direction, though: "Too much sleep can also be a trigger if you're altering your regular schedule," Dr. Green said. Your best bet is keeping a consistent bedtime and wake time—yes, even on the weekends.

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Use Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a therapy technique that uses electronic sensors to monitor muscle tension, skin temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. It aims to teach people how to control body functions that usually happen on their own, according to the Foundation for Peripheral Neurology.

"Biofeedback doesn't necessarily make you less stressed, but it unlinks the stress from your body's physiological response to it," Dr. Green said.

Like other headache remedies, we need more research to understand if and how biofeedback can relieve headache or migraines. Results have been inconsistent, but a pilot study published in December 2015 in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine suggested biofeedback could help improve migraine symptoms.

Don't like the idea of being hooked up to electrodes? Consider cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, which can teach you relaxation strategies like meditation and deep breathing.

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Consider Supplements

Since we're still learning how supplements may remedy headaches, talk to your healthcare provider before taking any new supplements to be sure it's safe for your specific medical situation.

A 2015 review published in BioMed Research International analyzed how riboflavin (vitamin B2); vitamins B6, B9, and B12; vitamin E; and vitamin C could affect migraines. It concluded that we need larger clinical trials to understand how and if these supplements affect different types of headaches.

However, a study published in February 2021 in Acta Neurologica Belgica found that 500 milligrams of magnesium oxide could help prevent migraine attacks. The American Headache Society recommends 400-500 milligrams daily, but again, talk with a healthcare provider before starting a new supplement.

Dietary supplements are minimally regulated by the FDA and may or may not be suitable for you. The effects of supplements vary from person to person and depend on many variables, including type, dosage, frequency of use, and interactions with current medications. Please speak with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before starting any supplements.

A Quick Review

Several natural headache remedies exist, but preventing and treating your headache could come down to you and your healthcare provider understanding what kind of headache or migraine you're experiencing. Figuring out an underlying cause could help you choose the best remedy.

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