Have you or anyone you know ever tried essential oils for headaches? The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 50% of the adult population globally suffer from occasional headaches. According to a WHO fact sheet, the number of people dealing with headache disorders, meaning they have recurrent headaches that damage their overall quality of life, has consistently been underestimated.
Painkillers—whether over-the-counter like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and naproxen or prescription like triptans—are by far the most common mainstream headache treatment. They can cause serious side effects, though, like kidney and liver damage. And while they can relieve symptoms, they don’t get at the root cause of headaches.
Essential oils, on the other hand, can actually mitigate headache triggers.They also have far fewer side effects than both over-the-counter and prescription headache treatments. The use of essential oils for migraines and other headaches has a long history in numerous herbal medicine traditions, and modern research has gone on to validate the effects of several essential oils.
What is an essential oil? The aromatic essence of a plant. Glandular structures in plants create these essences either on their surfaces or internally. Lavender, for instance, has external oil glands, that’s why you can smell the essential oil on your fingertips after you touch it. Eucalyptus, however, has internal oil glands—you have to break its leaves open to get at its essence.
The most common way to make pure essential oils is by using steam distillation. Fresh-picked plants are suspended over boiling water in a large hopper (basically, a super-sized version of a kitchen steaming basket), and as the steam passes through the hopper, it draws the aromatic essences from the plant. The vaporized essences rise with the steam into a condenser where the vapor cools and returns to a liquid state. It then travels into a separator where the oil rises to the top and is decanted off. The water, which still contains the water-soluble parts of the plant’s essence, is called hydrosol or floral water.
Essential oils treat headaches by targeting the root cause. Every kind of headache originates from a trigger, or a combination of triggers.
For example, many women get headaches as a result of hormonal changes. Fluctuations in estrogen, in particular the way levels drop just before and during periods, often trigger headaches.
Different essential oils can be used to reduce the effect of or even completely counterbalance those triggers.
Strong scientific evidence backs the use of the following five essential oils as headache treatments.
Peppermint is perhaps the best known, and one of the most extensively researched, essential oils for headaches. Peppermint essential oils contains menthol, which encourages your muscles to relax and soothes pain. Applying peppermint oil topically offers a pleasant cooling sensation. When rubbed onto your temples or forehead, it can stimulate contracted muscles to release and bring blood flow to the area. Peppermint oil is especially effective for migraines and tension headaches.
Researchers conducting a placebo-controlled, double-blind crossover study asked participants to apply peppermint oil topically at the onset of a headache and at the 15- and 30-minute marks if the headache persisted. Headache diaries kept by participants showed a significant reduction in pain intensity just 15 minutes after applying the oil. Over the one hour observation period, pain intensity continued to drop. Peppermint oil treated participants’ headaches just as effectively as 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen. The authors concluded that peppermint oil offers an affordable, side-effect free alternative to conventional treatments.
A separate study examining the pain-relieving mechanisms of peppermint noted that when topically applied, the oil “generates a long-lasting cooling effect on the skin,” as well as inhibiting “smooth muscle contraction” and increasing “skin blood flow,” an effect that can be measured by laser doppler. The authors tested peppermint’s ability to relieve headache pain specifically, and found that the oil can significantly lower pain levels as well as sensitivity during a headache.
Who hasn’t heard of, or directly experienced, the calming properties of lavender? Lavender essential oil encourages relaxation and soothes tension and stress. Given its proven sedative, antidepressant, anxiolytic, anticonvulsant, and neuroprotective effects, researchers are exploring how lavender can be used to treat a variety of neurological conditions.
Studies show that when inhaled or applied topically, lavender oil can affect your limbic system, a network of major structures in your brain that regulates basic emotions like fear, pleasure, and anger, as well as fundamental drives like hunger, sex, dominance, and caretaking. The main constituents of lavender oil, linalool and linalyl acetate, can both be rapidly absorbed through your skin and are believed to calm your central nervous system. This makes lavender especially effective at relieving headaches linked to anxiety disorders and conditions related to heightened central nervous system activity.
The results of a placebo-controlled clinical trial published in 2012 showed that inhaling lavender oil can effectively treat migraine headaches. When a migraine descended, participants in the treatment group inhaled lavender oil for 15 minutes while those in the placebo group inhaled liquid paraffin for the same length of time. Both groups recorded their headache severity and related symptoms at 30-minute intervals for a two-hour period.
Participants in the treatment group reported that lavender inhalation entirely or partially treated over 70% of their headaches. Those in the placebo group, however, reported only a 47% success rate for their treatment.
The authors concluded that inhaling lavender essential oil can be “an effective and safe treatment modality in acute management of migraine headaches.”
When it comes to using essential oils for sinus headache, it’s tough to top eucalyptus. Eucalyptus oil has potent anti-inflammatory, pain-blocking, and expectorant properties. It also opens your nasal passages and helps relieve the underlying congestion and pressure that can result in sinus headaches. Plus, it can boost your mood and restore emotional balance, so you can bounce back from a bad headache faster.
Little research has been done to validate the effects of eucalyptus oil on headaches, specifically. A randomized double-blind controlled trial focused on using essential oils to treat upper respiratory tract infections revealed that topical use of a spray containing eucalyptus led to significant and immediate improvement in symptoms, which included facial and forehead pain.
A separate clinical trial published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed that inhaling eucalyptus oil can decrease pain (the pain in question was not caused by headaches, however, but by total knee replacement surgery). The authors found that eucalyptus oil also had a relaxing effect and increased participants’ emotional stability.
Rosemary essential oil has a long history of use in folk medicine traditions as a treatment for headaches, stress, and poor circulation. Studies have validated its anti-inflammatory properties. It can treat insomnia and muscle tension, too—both of which are known headache triggers.
When applied topically or taken orally, rosemary can bring about a state of calm, focused alertness. This makes it a good preventative option for people prone to stress headaches. It can also quell the nausea that all too often accompanies headaches.
A fascinating study published in 2013 investigated the effectiveness of rosemary as a treatment for opium withdrawal syndrome. Symptoms of opium withdrawal include dysphoric mood, nausea, insomnia, fever, muscle aches, and headaches. Participants treated with rosemary had decreased symptoms. It had an especially significant effect on sleeping patterns and pain levels.
As is true of lavender, the comforting effects of the chamomile plant are quite famous. Chamomile essential oil contains high concentrations of esters, organic compounds with potent properties. Esters found in chamomile, including isobutyl angelate, have strong anti-inflammatory and sedative effects. Chamomile can help physical and mental tension melt away.
Researchers believe that, based on chamomile’s anti-inflammatory capacity as well as its neuroprotective capacity and several other beneficial properties, it could be a wonderful treatment of migraine pain. They also note that chamomile oil is traditionally used for that purpose in Iran’s ethno-medicine tradition.
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that chamomile significantly improved symptoms of anxiety and depression. That means chamomile essential oil could be a helpful way to relieve the stress that can result in tension headaches.
Experts agree that essential oils can generally be regarded as safe. Compared to mainstream headache and migraine medications, they come with far fewer side effects.
The biggest concern when trying a new essential oil, especially topically, is that it may cause irritation or an allergic reaction. Especially if you have sensitive skin, try applying the essential oil—mixed with a carrier oil, of course—to a small patch of skin. If you don’t see a reaction after 24 to 48 hours, you should have no issues using the oil elsewhere on your body.
Many essential oils, including lavender, rosemary, and chamomile, are not safe for children under one year of age and pregnant or breastfeeding women. If you have asthma or heart problems, essential oils can cause complications, so be sure to speak with a trusted health professional before trying them on your own.
When using essential oils internally, remember that you only need a very small amount—one to two drops will have a noticeable effect! And don’t use the oils continuously for over a month without pausing for at least a week.
While essential oils used to be a niche product, there’s now a thriving market in the United States. One of the two biggest companies, doTerra essential oils, has more than three million customers and sells a billion dollars’ worth of essential oils each year.
When purchasing essential oils, be sure to research the company you choose to buy from to ensure you’re getting pure, high-quality, and safe oils. The FDA does not monitor essential oils.