Aromatherapy with essential oils like peppermint or lavender is a common natural remedy for migraine headaches—and it smells great. But if strong scents are one of your migraine triggers (maybe strong perfume or strong food odors set you off), you might be skeptical of the idea that this treatment will offer you relief.
Though there isn’t a ton of evidence that aromatherapy helps headaches, some studies suggest that certain essential oils can be a safe and effective method for treating migraine headaches. And—anecdotally—some people swear by them, saying that they can ward off attacks before they start, or help soothe other symptoms that often come along with attacks, like nausea or trouble sleeping.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are highly concentrated chemical compounds extracted from plants. They’re often used as a home remedy for a variety of ailments as well as for overall health and wellbeing. And they usually smell pretty good!
Some of the most common essential oils for migraines are:
- Chamomile oil
- Lavender oil
- Peppermint oil
- Rose oil
- Spearmint oil
- Tangerine oil
So do essential oils really help?
It’s complicated. First off, it’s important to note that most essential oils are not FDA regulated, unless they include explicit drug claims, and many don’t. For that reason, there hasn’t been extensive government study of the oils. But other researchers have tested essential oils for headaches, arriving at some tentative findings.
One group of researchers found that the combination of peppermint and ethanol helped relieve pain, though they concluded that more studies were necessary to better understand how essential oils compare to other pain relievers. In another study, researchers found that inhaling lavender oil for 15 minutes could also help with migraine headaches. Chamomile oil is another potential pain reliever that's been shown to help with other symptoms like nausea too, but initial studies have been small. The results of a study on rose oil showed some promise, but were also far from definitive: Scientists in that study said it may be the case that rose oil may only provide relief to people who experience certain kinds of migraine headaches.
But aside from these scientific findings (or lack thereof) some people say they’ve come to rely on essential oils as a home remedy for dealing with migraine attacks. Some say they dab peppermint oil on their forehead, temples, or the back of their neck for relief, while others say they combine peppermint and eucalyptus oil in a candlelit aromatherapy oil burner. And some migraine sufferers say that while essential oils may not completely eliminate an attack, it can help with some of the other symptoms that come along with it, like nausea or trouble sleeping.
Essential oils don’t come with any serious side effects if used properly—we’ll get to that in a bit!—so there’s almost no downside to giving them a try, even if they don’t end up working for you.
What are the best essential oils for migraine headaches?
The American Migraine Foundation recommends lavender, peppermint, and tangerine essential oils for migraine treatment, but the organization notes that these headache therapies are not “rigorously proven.” As we mentioned above, researchers have reported some relief for study participants who used rose, peppermint, and lavender oils, but these findings are not as definitive as we would like. And like so much else when it comes to migraine treatments, the question of which essential oil is best for migraine relief can be completely different from person to person. Still, the oils we listed are a good place to start.
How do I use essential oils for migraine attacks?
Essential oils can be inhaled or used topically. There are a few different ways to safely inhale essential oils: One way is by using a diffuser. Some diffusers are waterless—meaning you fill the diffuser with pure essential oils—while some come with a water tank that you drop the essential oils into. (Heads up: The former can be more expensive in the long run because they require more oil each time you use it.)
If you’re not using a diffuser you can gently waft the essential oil right from the bottle, or use the steam method, which is sort of like creating your own water diffuser. This method involves placing a few drops of essential oil into a bowl of hot water and putting a towel over your head, and the bowl, while breathing deeply for several minutes—think of it as your personal spa.
If you’re interested in applying essential oils directly to the skin, never do this without first diluting the oil of your choice in what’s called a carrier oil. Because essential oils are concentrated, they can result in severe irritation and burns if they’re not diluted. Carrier oils make them safe to “carry” to your skin.
Fractionated coconut oil, jojoba oil, grapeseed oil, and olive oil are all kinds of carrier oils—and you may already have one of these in your kitchen cupboard. Try dabbing some of this mixture onto a cold compress for your forehead and temples, or onto a warm one for the base of your neck. Whatever feels right!
Are there any potential risks or side effects I should know about?
Yes, but as we mentioned above, they’re relatively minor and easy to avoid for the most part. First, you always want to make sure you’re checking the labels of the oils you’re buying, to be sure they’re pure and don’t include any additives.
Some essential oils also come with strict warnings for children, pregnant people, and people with different preconditions, like heart disease, high blood pressure, or epilepsy. Other essential oils are phototoxic, which means that if you’ve applied them to your skin (with a carrier oil, of course!) you should avoid direct sunlight since it could lead to a bad sunburn.
And finally, if your migraine headaches are scent-triggered, essential oils could bring one on—some migraine sufferers say essential oils are an exception for them, but they won’t be for everyone.
So, again, there’s not a ton of evidence that essential oils make a significant difference for people suffering from migraine headaches, but they still have the potential to soothe your attacks in combination with a complementary therapy, or help with some of the other symptoms that accompany your attacks. The worst thing that will happen is that nothing happens.
If you’re interested in incorporating oils into your treatment plan, make sure to loop your healthcare provider in and ask if that’s the right call for you.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Photo by Chelsea Shapouri via Unsplash