Many people ask about “natural” remedies for migraine and headache that they can use instead of or in conjunction with their prescription medications. Although I’ve never found anything in that category that can stop a migraine, there are some complementary therapies that can be helpful during a migraine or even in blocking fragrances and chemicals from triggering a migraine attack. I choose to call these therapies complementary rather than alternative because they can be used to complement more traditional therapies, rather than being used as an alternative to them.
Aromatherapy can be an excellent complementary therapy for migraine. Although it cannot abort a Migraine, it can offer symptomatic relief and comfort. In my personal use, I find aromatherapy helpful for fighting nausea and helping me relax or get to sleep while I’m waiting for my medications to kick and for the migraine to end. Some oils help me feel less of the panic the migraines sometimes induce. I’ve also found ways to use aromatherapy to help avoid migraines that are triggered by perfumes, other scented products, and chemical odors.
First, what is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils extracted from plants for both physiological and psychological treatment. It’s an ancient therapy that began in early civilizations as people started discovering the healing properties of plants. The term “aromatherapy” was first used by French chemist René-Maruice Gattefossé in 1928. While working in his family’s perfumer business, Gattefossé discovered that lavender caused a severe burn on his hand to heal more quickly - and without scarring. Dr. Jean Valnet, another French scientist, used essential oils for the successful treatment of medical and psychiatric disorders. Madame Marguerite Maury introduced the first aromatherapy clinics in France, Switzerland, and Britain.
Essential oils are different from what we usually think of as oils. Most evaporate quickly and have a very light texture. They’re found in various parts of plants including flowers, seeds, bark, roots, leaves, wood, balsam, and resin. Very few essential oils are safe to be applied directly to the skin. Most should be mixed in carrier oils that “carry” the essence to the skin.
Carrier oils are gentle, pure oils used to “carry” essential oils. Some of the most commonly used carrier oils are sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil, grapeseed oil, and fractionated coconut oil. My favorite is fractionated coconut oil. It has no scent of it’s own, is very light, has a good “slip,” and easily washes out of linens and clothing. Essential oils can also be added to lotions and butters such as cocoa butter, aloe butter, and shea butter.
Aromatherapy for Migraines:
Essential oils can be used to ease several possible migraine symptoms, including:
- congestion, and
Aromatherapy has two basic forms - application to the skin and inhalation. Although it’s called aromatherapy, it’s not just the aroma that’s therapeutic. Essential oils also directly interact with body chemistry, affecting some systems and organs.
Essential oils can be used in several different ways for migraines:
- Smelling salts: I start with small cobalt or amber bottles with orifice reducers (little inserts that reduce the bottle opening so the contents come out a drop at a time) and make different bottles of smelling salts…
- Fill it with dead sea salt.
- Add fractionated coconut oil to fill the bottle about 75%.
- Add essential oils for specific purposes:
- peppermint* oil for nausea.
- lemongrass or red mandarin oil for feelings of depression
- sandalwood and clary sage oils for anxiety / panic
- eucalyptus oil for sinus congestion (This often helps relieve the facial pain that sometimes accompanies my Migraines too.)
- Insert the orifice reducer in the top of the bottle. These reduce the bottle openings and help prevent spillage.
- Cap the bottles tightly and keep out of direct sunlight. Amber or cobalt bottles will protect the oils from most light and keep them fresher and effective longer.
- Roll-Ons: There are some roll-on products available for migraine, but I prefer to make my own. Start with empty roll-on bottles. The frosted ones are better to protect the oils from light.
- Fill the bottle about 75 to 80% with carrier oil.
- Choose essential oils and add 10 drops. I like a combination of peppermint*, lavender, and clary sage.
- Insert the roller ball.
- Cap tightly between uses. Keep out of direct sunlight.
- I usually apply this to my temples and wrists.
- Bottled blends: These blends can be applied to the skin or a few drops can be sprinkled on pillows. For these too, I start with cobalt or amber bottles with orifice reducers.
- Fill the bottle about 75 to 80% with carrier oil. I always use fractionated coconut oil for these because it washes out of pillow cases.
- Choose essential oils and add 10 drops. I keep a few of these mixed up so I can use whichever one fits the situation. The one I use most is a relaxation / sleep blend that I sprinkle on my pillow to help me relax and get to sleep when I have a Migraine. In this one, I use chamomile, lavender, and clary sage.
- Insert the orifice reducer in the top of the bottle.
- Again, cap the bottles tightly and keep out of direct sunlight. Amber or cobalt bottles will protect the oils from most light and keep them fresher and effective longer.
- Aroma lamps and diffusers: Aroma lamps have little wells or bowls where you place drops of essential oils or water with drops of oils. Some have candles to heat the oils; some are electric. For safety reasons, I avoid those with candles, preferring to use an electric diffuser such as the Aroma Stone pictured here. As the water and oils heat, the scent diffuses into your room. These are best used close to you or in a small room.
Everyone responds differently to the various essential oils, so it can take some experimentation to find which ones you prefer. Here’s a chart of some recommended oils for different purposes:
|**Carrier Oils**||**Essential Oils for Migraine / Headache**|
|**Essential Oils for Depression**||**Essential Oils for Anxiety / Panic**|
|**Essential Oils for Relaxation / Sleep**||**A Dozen to Get Started**|
Summary and comments:
Even though aromatherapy doesn’t stop migraines, I love the symptomatic relief and comfort it offers. I also like to keep a bottle of peppermint* smelling salts with me. Perfume and other odors can be migraine triggers for me. I’ve found that if I get the peppermint* smelling salts to my nose quickly enough and am not around the triggering odor very long, I can sometimes avoid a migraine. Recently, I discovered tiny glass vials that hold just a couple of drops of oil and can be worn as pendants. These can be great in situations where fragrance triggers might be encountered. The stoppers screw on to prevent spills, and if they’re loosened a bit, the pendant can be held close to the nose to mask triggering odors.
As with any type of treatment, use caution and common sense. Discuss aromatherapy as a complementary therapy with your doctor. He or she may not know much about it, but it’s worth a discussion. There are some excellent books on aromatherapy. Four of them are listed below in my references.
Better results are achieved with higher quality essential oils. Be cautious of essential oils bottled in clear bottles and those that sit on store shelves that are hit by direct sunlight. If finding good oils in your area is a problem, there are reputable aromatherapy suppliers online. One of my favorite online sellers is Nature’s Gift. I have no affiliation with them and don’t profit from referring people to them. I just like their products and have been pleased with the quality and service.
- A note of caution: Most aromatherapy experts recommend that peppermint oil never be applied directly to the skin and that it not be used by pregnant women or young children.
Clark, Marge. “essential oils and aromatics.” Silverleaf Press. 2008.
Lawless, Julia, “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils.” Element Books. 1995.
Davis, Patricia. “Aromatherapy An A-Z” Random House. 2000.
Schnaublet, Kurt, PhD. “The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils: The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy.” Healing Arts Press. 2011.
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© Teri Robert, 2014 Last updated February 12, 2014.
Teri Robert is a leading patient educator and advocate and the author of Living Well with Migraine Disease and Headaches. A co-founder of the Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy and the American Headache and Migraine Association, she received the National Headache Foundation’s Patient Partners Award and a Distinguished Service Award from the American Headache Society. Teri can be found on her website, and blog, Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Google+.