You have no time to be sidelined by a throbbing head, but seasonal factors like cold temperatures, lack of sunlight, and dry indoor air make headaches nearly twice as likely to strike right now. And while painkillers are touted as a fast and easy way to get relief, experts are increasingly warning about their health-sapping downsides.
“OTC pain relievers can cause stomach upset and gastric damage, as well as rebound pain that makes headaches recur,” says integrative physician Fred Pescatore, MD, author of The A-List Diet: Lose up to 15 Pounds and Look and Feel Younger in Just 2 Weeks ($8.19, Amazon). “Plus, research has linked their use to an increased risk of hearing loss, cognitive problems, and even heart attack.”
Prescription-strength pain medications can trigger even more severe side effects, warns Dr. Pescatore. Small wonder, then, that a University of Washington study found headache sufferers are 371 percent more likely to prefer natural remedies over prescription meds. But which natural cures are best?
Here, we rounded up the most effective targeted strategies so you can get speedy drug-free relief!
Tension headache? Try cooling a rub.
Peppermint oil eases tension headaches as effectively as aspirin and acetaminophen — and the benefits kick in within just 15 minutes, according to a double-blind study at the Kiel Migraine, Headache and Pain Center in Germany.
“The mint’s menthol activates cold receptors in the skin and opens blood vessels, counteracting the vessel constriction that produces tension-related head pain,” says Dr. Pescatore. He advises mixing 5 drops of peppermint oil with 1 tsp. of olive oil and rubbing on your temples and forehead for 5 minutes using gentle circular motions.
Also smart: Sip a glass of water at the first sign of pain. In a study at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, 65 percent of sufferers who did so were pain-free within 30 minutes.
Migraine? Sniff a soothing scent.
It may seem too simple to have such a strong impact on migraine pain, but a study in the journal European Neurology revealed that inhaling lavender oil delivers partial or complete relief in 71 percent of migraine episodes in 2 hours. The credit goes to the aromatic compound linalool.
“When inhaled, it enters the bloodstream through mucous membranes in the nose and blocks pain-transmitting receptors on nerves,” says Bindiya Gandhi, MD, a functional and integrative family physician in Decatur, Georgia. She tells her migraine patients to pair the oil with the 4-7-8 breathing technique, which lowers levels of hormones that trigger migraine pain.
To do: Inhale the aroma through one nostril for 4 seconds, wait 7 seconds, then exhale for 8 seconds; repeat on the other nostril. Repeat the breathing technique twice without the oil.
Sinus headache? Use this saline rinse.
Saltwater rinses are known to ease sinus inflammation and the headaches it triggers, but research suggests that rinses made with Dead Sea salts provide superior relief. In one study, these salts reduced symptoms including pain, pressure and congestion by nearly 80 percent, making them as effective as nasal steroids.
“The salts contain anti-inflammatory minerals such as magnesium and zinc that can relieve pain in 5 to 10 minutes,” says Dr. Pescatore. To make your own rinse, boil 2 cups of water, add 1 tsp. of Dead Sea salts and let cool until lukewarm. Then use a neti pot to flush sinuses.
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.
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