Those who suffer from migraines can attest that when one strikes, the only thing you want to do is soothe those spears of pain—fast. While there's no doubt that pharmaceutical drugs provide quick relief, Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, says there is a powerful natural alternative to consider, too: essential oils.
Scent and pain might seem like arbitrary concepts, but Axe says the two are closely connected. "In addition to being sensitive to light or sound, many migraine sufferers are also sensitive to smells when they are having an attack," he tells MyDomaine. "This is because scent receptors in the brain can be activated at the same time as pain receptors."
Curious to see if this natural pain relief actually works? Follow Axe's three-step method to minimize and soothe a migraine.
Step One: Review Your Diet
To find out what might be triggering your migraines, Axe says to start by reviewing your diet. "One common symptom [to a sensitivity or intolerance] is a headache or migraine, particularly for those with a gluten sensitivity," he says, noting that it can be hard to track because symptoms can take up to 48 hours to present. "Removing gluten is definitely a good place to start if you’re unsure whether your headaches are triggered by diet."
It's not all about removing foods from your diet, though. Axe also recommends adding magnesium-rich foods, for the nutrient's pain-relieving effects. "Magnesium can block the pain-transmitting chemicals in the brain and can also prevent the visual and sensory changes that are common during headaches and migraines," he says. "Some examples [of magnesium-rich foods] include beans, seeds, nuts, and green vegetables."
Finally, make sure you drink plenty of water. "Staying hydrated is vitally important for preventing migraines," he says. While you're at it, "Eating more fruits and vegetables with a high water content (like cucumbers, celery, cauliflower, and oranges) can help, too," he says.
Step Two: Choose an Essential Oil
If your migraines persist, Axe recommends stocking your medicine cabinet and desk drawer with essential oils to soothe the pain. These are the top three natural blends he recommends:
"Peppermint oil can relax tense muscles, making it ideal for relieving tension headaches and migraines. It’s also a great natural energizer, so I recommend using it during the day," says Axe. He points to a study published in the journal Phytomedicine that shows peppermint oil and ethanol has a "significant analgesic [or pain-relieving] effect," and is effective in reducing headache sensitivity.
"Lavender is naturally calming, so I recommend diffusing it in your bedroom in the evening before bed," says Axe. "It will cause the body to relax and help relieve pain from any lingering headache, and it will also help you to fall asleep and get a good night’s rest, which can help to prevent headaches the following day."
In one study, researchers used lavender aromatherapy to treat people suffering from headache attacks. Of the 129 patients, 92 "responded entirely or partially to lavender," suggesting the plant could have soothing properties.
"Rosemary oil has been shown to lower the stress hormone cortisol, which can trigger headaches when elevated, and also reduce pain," says Axe. It has been used in folk medicine to treat headaches because of its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.
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Step Three: Create a Ritual
The way you apply essential oil is key, says Axe. "Migraines can be caused by stress or anxiety, so any activity that allows the sufferer to slow down and achieve a state of calm can definitely help to ease symptoms," he explains. "The application of essential oils is one of my favorite natural stress relievers."
Try these three simple rituals at home:
Focus on Areas of Tension
Rosemary oil is best used to relieve stress, so Axe recommends following an application ritual that targets areas of tension. Some natural health practitioners believe applying pressure to the back of the head can help relieve headaches, migraines, and eye pain. Axe follows this simple routine: "Mix three drops [of rosemary oil] with 1/2 tsp of coconut oil, and rub onto the upper neck for relief."
Use a Diffuser
Axe recommends using a diffuser to fill your bedroom with the scent of lavender before bed. Ending your day with this evening routine will cue your body to wind down, too. "In addition to relieving pain, lavender is also a known relaxant, so coupling those benefits with a mindful, meditative ritual may actually prevent stress-induced headaches and migraines going forward," he says.
Pay Attention to Pressure Points
Peppermint oil is energizing, so Axe recommends using it during the day. "Keep a bottle at your desk or in your purse, and when you feel a headache coming on, simply apply a few drops to your forehead and/or temples for pain relief," he says. Slowly massaging your temples increases circulation and can provide a distraction from any discomfort.