21 Natural Ways to Prevent and Treat Headaches

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

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.

That's because several kinds of headaches exist.

The third edition of the International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD-3) identifies the most common primary headaches as:

  • Migraine headaches: You may think of a migraine as "just" a bad headache, but it's actually a neurological condition. You may be diagnosed with chronic migraines if you experience them at least 15 days per month.
  • Tension-type headaches (TTH): These are sometimes called ordinary or stress headaches.
  • Cluster headaches: These are clinically known as trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias (TACs).
  • Other primary headaches include cough headaches, exercise headaches, headaches associated with sexual activity (also called "orgasm headaches"), thunderclap headaches, cold-stimulated headaches, stabbing headaches (also called "ice-pick headaches"), hypnic headaches (also called "alarm headaches"), and new daily persistent headache (NDPH).

The most common secondary headaches are:

Someone may also experience headaches from lesions of cranial nerves, as seen in conditions like trigeminal neuralgia.

It's important to understand that a headache can take on several forms, frequencies, and severities--especially if you are trying to prevent one or remedy a headache already wreaking havoc. If your headaches are so frequent and severe you find yourself unable to work or complete day-to-day activities, you should speak to a doctor 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, says Elizabeth Loder, MD, chief of the headache and pain division at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and 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," she says.

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

02 of 21

Eat small, frequent meals

If you haven't eaten anything in a while, that aching or fuzzy feeling may be a result of low blood sugar. In this case, eating something right away could nip the nagging sensation in the bud. Some research suggests that foods rich in the mineral magnesium--such as spinach, tofu, olive oil, or sunflower or pumpkin seeds--may be especially helpful in alleviating headaches.

In general, Dr. Green advises 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, says Dr. Loder.

"You can also make little ice popsicles in the freezer and rub the forehead or temples for up to 10 minutes," she says. Many people think ice dulls pain by shrinking blood vessels, but Dr. Loder says 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 it works, she says, 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, but sometimes a steamy shower may be just what you need, says Dr. Green.

If your headache is related to a cold or sinus pressure, he adds, the moist, warm air can clear your nasal passages as well. A 2016 study found that while steam inhalation was not an effective treatment for most sinus symptoms, patients did report it helped their sinus headaches.

05 of 21

Get a massage

Massage, one of the most old-fashioned ways to treat a headache is still one of the most effective, says Dr. Loder. Self-massaging or (if you can afford to) getting a professional massage may provide relief.

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

06 of 21

Try acupressure

Acupressure is a form of traditional Chinese medicine massage. It is noninvasive and is centered around the idea of qi, or the flow of energy. 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 the thumb and index finger of your opposite hand 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 2017 study 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," says Dr. Loder, who adds that it may also he helpful to rub ice on this spot for a few minutes. You could also try acupuncture. The technique, which uses long needles inserted into the skin to stimulate trigger points throughout the body, has been shown to help prevent migraines as well as frequent tension-type headaches.

07 of 21

Go easy on the alcohol

This may be the most obvious one 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 also increase dehydration, which can also cause headaches, so be sure to sip water along with your alcoholic beverage of choice.

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

"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 says. "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, suggests Dr. Green.

A 2021 study found that dehydration alone may cause headaches, as well as exasperate headaches related to an underlying condition.

You've surely heard to "drink 8 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 about 3.7 liters of water a day (about 13 cups of that should come from beverages), while women should aim for 2.7 liters (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 2014 study debunked the long-standing theory that its moderate caffeine consumption contributed to dehydration.

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

09 of 21

Maintain a healthy weight

Weight has not had a proven relationship to causing migraines and headaches or an increased prevalence of migraine; but obesity could be related to frequency of migraine or headache attacks.

"We also know that being obese can turn episodic headaches into chronic headaches," says Dr. Green. "It's one of the major risk factors we worry about."

Few studies, however, have looked into if weight loss can help migraines or headaches. If you suspect you may be under- or overweight, and you experience frequent headaches or migraines, consult a physician.

10 of 21

Manage stress levels

"Be less stressed" is not always helpful advice, but understanding the ramifications of stress is important nonetheless. Tension headaches are sometimes called muscle contraction or stress headaches because there may be a linked to stress and posture. These headaches can be episodic or chronic. They can last from 30 minutes to seven days in duration, and famously have a band-like tightening feeling to them all the way 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," explains Dr. Loder. She recommends 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 adds.

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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," says Dr. Loder. "But it's important to not overdo it, because you can build up a tolerance for it."

Caffeine is a double-edged sword, she explains: 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," she says. "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 exasperating headaches is still understudied. A 2020 review of available evidence concluded that caffeine's role in migraine headache is "ambiguous."

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Take computer breaks

Eyestrain on its own isn't usually a cause of bad headaches, says Dr. Loder, but she believes that spending long hours in front of a computer can make people more susceptible to them. "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," she says.

Indeed, "screen headaches," as these are sometimes called, need more research, but a few studies have shown a relationship between screen time and headaches.

Paying attention to ergonomics at your workspace can help reduce strain on the neck, she says, and taking frequent breaks—every 30 minutes or so, to stretch and look away from your computer screen—can reduce eyestrain and muscle stiffness.

13 of 21

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, we do know that headaches can be symptoms of heat exhaustion.

"Bright sunlight, heat, and dehydration probably all play a role in this type of pain," says Dr. Green. Wearing sunglasses can help, he says, as can seeking shade—or air conditioning—when you feel yourself getting overheated.

14 of 21

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 actually make the pressure or the pounding worse, says Dr. Green. This is called an exertion headache. But during the times you're headache-free, regular exercise is a good way to help you stay that way.

Other research has suggested that yoga can also help prevent headaches because it lowers stress levels, can lead to better sleep, and stretches muscles. Although Dr. Loder recommends taking caution with hot yoga classes if high temperatures are a known trigger for you.

15 of 21

Spit out your gum

Chronic gum-chewing can contribute to stress on your jaw, suggests a 2014 study from Tel Aviv University. TMJ has been linked to head pain, and researchers found that out of 30 teenage and adolescent participants, 26 saw their headache symptoms improve when they gave up their daily gum-chewing habit.

A 2015 review summized that while more research is necessary 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," says Dr. Loder. Her patients often complain about visiting the dentist, she adds, because keeping their mouths open for so long can give them headaches as well.

16 of 21

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, says Dr. Loder. A 2020 review of 43 studies that assessed diet-related triggers of migraine and concluded we don't have enough randomized controlled trial data to know the exact relationship between diet and migraine but suggested patients pay attention to what foods trigger headache or migraine.

"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," she explains. That being said, Dr. Loder does encourage her patients to pay attention to their dietary choices and to look for 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," she says. 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 that's too bright, fast, or flashy, says Dr. Loder: "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 types of situations when possible.

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Ride in the front seat

Headaches often go along with motion sickness, especially for people who are prone to queasiness or migraines. And you don't have to be in a boat or on an airplane, says Dr. Loder. Carsickness is quite common.

Motion sickness remedies like Dramamine or supplements containing ginger may help, but so can something as simple as riding in the front seat so you have a good view of the road. Don't try to read or watch videos, either, Dr. Loder says; 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," says Dr. Green.

One of the most common triggers, in fact, is getting too little sleep. 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," says Dr. Green. 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 patients how to control these normally automatic body functions.

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

Like other headache remedies, we need more research to understand if and how biofeedback can relieve headache or migraine. Results have been inconsistent, but a 2016 review of 5 studies reported biofeedback seemed helpful for migraine frequency.

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

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Consider supplements

Some research has suggested that certain dietary supplements and vitamins may be helpful in preventing recurring headaches.

Various clinical trials have studied how riboflavin (vitamin B2); vitamins B6, B9, and B12; vitamin E; and vitamin C can affect migraine, but more recent data is needed.

Before taking any new supplement, however, talk to your doctor to be sure it's safe for your specific medical situation.

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