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Herbal Hacks for Headaches & Migraines

headaches migraines stress

by Kaitlan Downes, MSAOM

Most of us have experienced a headache at some point in our lives. If we are lucky, they come and go and only disrupt our days occasionally. Unfortunately, too many people suffer through a quite different experience. Migraines and chronic headaches can be extremely debilitating, causing missed work, unrelenting pain, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, depression, and fatigue.

If you are one of the over 28 million Americans who suffer from headaches or migraines, you are likely very familiar with the wide range of treatments and “cures” on the market. Many of these can be of great help, while some provide only temporary relief or even no relief. Few of these treatments are individualized or take the wide range of potential causes into account. The key to finding long-lasting relief for headaches is to uncover and address your individual issue. 

Chinese medicine has treated headaches with acupuncture and herbal medicine for millennia. Let’s see how it may be able to help you, too!

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Headaches

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can be extremely powerful in treating headaches. From mild tension headaches to debilitating migraines, this holistic herbal medicine can be used to re-establish a healthy balance in the body and relieve pain.

Most pain conditions are seen as “blockages” or “stagnation” in either the vessels or organ systems. While you might think headaches would simply be stagnation in the head, there are actually many different types of headaches in Chinese medicine. The location, intensity, type of pain, and accompanying symptoms are considered when working with headaches.

So, why is Traditional Chinese Medicine so helpful when it comes to treating headaches? This approach works to the root of why you’re suffering from headaches. This means you’ll not only experience a decrease in the intensity and frequency of headaches, but you may be able to resolve them entirely. 

Diet and Lifestyle

Those who have endured migraines for any length of time are usually familiar with the current research on how to prevent and cure them. But despite the vast amount of information and medications available for treating headaches, many of us are still suffering. Before getting into the magic of herbal medicine for headaches, let’s look into some ways we can help improve our chances of relief:

Food Medicine

Headaches are sometimes the body’s way of letting us know that something isn’t right – especially when it comes to diet. Triggers are different for everyone, so it’s best to keep a journal/food diary to help you match any correlations between your diet and headaches. This can take some detective work and a little bit of time, but it can be worth it!

There are some general foods that are known migraine-inducers. These common culprits like alcohol, chocolate, MSG, aged cheese, and foods with nitrites like processed meats. Do your best to avoid these foods and favor anti-inflammatory foods rich in nutrients like magnesium, riboflavin, omega-3s, and water.

Go-to Foods for Headaches

  • spinach
  • sweet potatoes
  • Swiss chard
  • amaranth
  • quinoa
  • sunflower seeds
  • brown rice
  • whole grains
  • lean beef
  • mushrooms
  • broccoli
  • salmon
  • mackerel
  • olive oil
  • watermelon
  • apples
  • berries

Stress & Headaches

It’s no surprise that stress can cause headaches. These little disturbances are just a part of life, and usually go away after rest or with time. When stress really starts to impact our health, however, it can be a major trigger for more serious and debilitating headaches. Adding in light exercise and a meditation or visualization practice can greatly help reduce stress and reduce both the intensity and frequency of headaches.

Herbal medicine helps to rewire our unhealthy response to stress and start to unwind the issues that stress has caused in the body. 

Herbal Remedies for Stress-related headaches:

Tension, stress, and irritability: For mild headaches related to stress, try Jia Wei Xiao Yao Wan. This formula is a version of the popular Xiao Yao Wan with added herbs for reducing heat and pent up anger or tension. Headaches of this type often occur in the eyebrows, temples, or jaw (teeth grinding).

Anxiety, insomnia, or pounding head: If your headaches seem to be more related to anxiety rather than anger or stress, consider Chai Hu Long Gu Mu Li Wan. This soothing formula works to bring excess energy harassing the head and chest down to relieve pain. Chai Hu Long Gu Mu Li Tang can be particularly great for those who have pounding, hectic feeling headaches or experience night-time headaches with trouble sleeping. 

Hormone Balance and Menstrual Cycle-Related Headaches

Migraines often have something to do with hormone imbalance, especially for women. If you notice your headaches or migraines change along with your menstrual cycle, it’s a good idea to take a look at hormones.

Traditional Chinese Medicine began to understand women’s bodies long before structures like hormones were ever thought of or studied. Ancient doctors discovered that certain times during a woman’s cycle correlated with different energy shifts and needs. Just like the moon, the yearly seasons, and the life cycle in general, the menstrual cycle has rhyme and reason. Understanding how illness correlates with this cycle can help us understand our health challenges even more.

Herbal Remedies for Cycle-related Headaches

Premenstrual headaches: Premenstrual headaches are very common and often come with a slew of other symptoms: digestive changes, irritability, nausea, leg pain, back pain, moodiness, and other “PMS” troubles. At this time in the cycle, the body is preparing to release – and sometimes there’s a little friction. This causes stagnation, heat, and agitation in those who need some herbal soothing.

For premenstrual headaches (and many of those other woes), try Xiao Yao Wan. This formula works to move qi, release tension, smooth the flow of blood, relieve pain, and balance the mood.

Headaches during bleeding: Some women find that their headaches follow the start of their bleeding. In most cases, this is due to insufficient blood. Periods tend to be light and short with little bleeding and even feelings of dizziness or great fatigue. What’s happening here is that there is not enough blood in the system to properly nourish and enrich the body. As more blood leaves during menstruation, the body is stressed and a dull, tired headache creeps in.

Does this sound familiar? Your formula will need to focus on generating more and healthier blood. Let’s nourish with Si Wu Wan. This formula is great because it not only helps to improve the quality of your blood but also improves the flow of blood through the reproductive system and the acupuncture channels of the body.

Headaches near ovulation: Ovulation is a big job for the Liver system – we need smooth flowing Liver energy to help us ovulate fully and smoothly. During this time, the Liver can be stressed with its extra work. If you notice headaches midcycle, try Chai Hu Shu Gan Wan. This formula is particularly helpful if you also notice chest, breast, or rib-side soreness, irritability, or tension around ovulation or before bleeding.

A General Herbal Remedy for Headaches

There is one formula in Traditional Chinese Medicine that works particularly well to help relieve the pain from headaches in general. Chuan Xiong Wan, and its main ingredient Chuan Xiong, is a well-known pain reliever, especially for headaches.

Chuan Xiong Wan is a great formula to have on hand for those pesky headaches that come up out of nowhere or after spending too much time outside in cold or windy weather. 

Topical Chinese Medicine Headache Hacks

Most herbal formulas for headaches are best used regularly to both help relieve headaches and fix the root of the problem. With regular use, the pattern of imbalance will be set right and headaches will naturally diminish.

Sometimes, however, you need a little extra help in the throws of a headache to help naturally relieve pain. This is where topical liniments and tinctures come to the rescue!

Tension, stress, and sinus: For the average tension headache with sore spots at the temple or back of the neck, apply a dab of White Flower Oil. This oil has a beautiful minty fragrance that will open blocked channels and blood vessels and release tension. Another great use or White Flower Oil is sinus headaches. The aromatic quality and essential oils unblock nasal passages and relieve headaches due to congestion or colds.

Muscular aches, postural, tight: For headaches that respond well to warmth or are caused by muscle tension, try Po Sum On oil. This oil is typically used for sore muscles and does an excellent job of loosening tight muscles of the neck, shoulders, and back that can cause aches and pain in the head. Try massaging the oil into the soles of the feet for even more relief. 

Conquer Your Headaches with Chinese Herbal Medicine

Herbal and plant medicine is one of the most amazing gifts the Earth offers to us. Even many of our current medications are derived from plants (like common aspirin). Getting to the root of your headaches can be tricky, but there’s no need to suffer through them.

The first step in conquering your headaches is determining their cause. It may take some detective work but it is all worth it in the end. With the right herbal formula, your headaches can be a thing of the past – allowing you to take your life back and live to the fullest, pain-free!



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