When you have a headache, the first thing you might do is reach for some OTC medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. And those can really help provide some relief. But if you're looking for some alternative ways to soothe a headache, you can also try some aromatherapy. Some essential oils can be used to relieve tension and promote relaxation.
Aba Gyepi-Garbrah, certified aromatherapist and founder of Aba Love Apothecary, says there are many ways you can use essential oils for headaches. "What makes their use successful is making sure that your chosen blends are easily accessible or set up in advance for quick relief," she explains. "This is ideal for frequent headache sufferers that may be due to a variety of issues: allergy and sinus, a menstrual cycle, quitting caffeine, stress, etc. Migraines or chronic headaches should be investigated by a medical professional to rule out any underlying health conditions that may be serious. Using essential oils to naturally relieve headaches, especially chronic ones, should only be used as a tool to provide relief until you can see your doctor."
This type of therapy or treatment has its roots in Ayurvedic medicine. Michelle Ranavat, founder of Ayurvedic beauty brand Ranavat, explains that the oils are classified in Ayurveda according to their effect on body temperature and how this affects the doshas. "Headaches are usually a result of an imbalanced Vata dosha, so we look to oils to help balance this dosha," she says. "An imbalance of this dosha leads to dry skin, headaches, and cold. To counteract this imbalance, we use oils that are heavy, calming, and warming. Energizing oils work well here (camphor, cinnamon, bergamot, cypress) combined with calming, stabilizing oils (sandalwood, jasmine, rose). This combination brings warmth and strengthens circulation, helping to soothe headaches and boost the immune system."
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When treating headaches, you can use essential oils aromatically or topically. "For an aromatic application, you can diffuse them or smell them by opening the bottle and wafting the scent towards you," says Denise LaPalm, a certified professional aromatherapist and the founder of L'Beauxtique. "Topical application—our preferred method for general headaches—means applying to the skin and can be achieved by adding a few drops of your chosen essential oil to jojoba oil in a rollerball/roll-on blend and applying it to the forehead, back of the neck, and temples and gently massaging into the skin." Never ingest essential oils (unless supervised by a licensed medical professional) or use them undiluted on the skin.
Gyepi-Garbrah shares other ways to use a roller, which include palming (swiping across the palms and inhaling five times until you feel relief) and applying to your pulse points, sternum, and abdomen (if stress is alongside an upset stomach). And she stresses that a little goes a long way—begin with a few drops to get familiar with the strength and tenacity of essential oils without overwhelming the senses. You can also put a couple of drops into a tissue and inhale five times until you feel relief, or make a misting spray by mixing essential oils, high-proof alcohol, and distilled water.
As for how long it takes to feel sweet relief, it depends on the individual and how you react to the oils. Trevor T’úýtemken Ellestad Van Somer, herbalist, aromatherapist, and Saje Natural Wellness's director of PR, communications, and social media, adds that it also depends on how the oil is being used. "When diffusing, it may take a little more time, as well as some deep breathing, before you begin to move into a calmer state of mind," he says.
If you're looking to try this option for relief, take a look at some recommended ones below. Before you reach for them, you'll probably want to discuss with your doctor or a healthcare professional who knows your personal health history and can give you advice based on your particular situation. In general, Gyepi-Garbrah says immunocompromised, pregnant women, elderly people, and young children should use caution.
Ranavat says bergamot is uplifting and calming and helps soothe feelings of stress.
"Cajeput is a camphorous oil with analgesic or numbing qualities and is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties. When properly diluted, this essential oil can help to reduce and relieve pain," Ellestad Van Somer says.
Ranavat says cinnamon is an analgesic (relieves pain) and is also detoxifying and calming.
Ranavat adds that cypress is both grounding and calming, which isn't surprising given its fresh and clear scent.
Ellestad Van Somer explains that this essential oil is rich in the ingredient eucalyptol, which is both warming and soothing to tense or painful muscles. "The expectorant quality of eucalyptus is very helpful in relieving headaches from sinus congestion," adds Gyepi-Garbrah. "It opens up the respiratory system to encourage deep breathing, which may also be helpful in tension headaches."
7. Ho Wood
LaPalm says this oil, which has origins in Asia, is a great essential oil for headaches and migraines. "Ho Wood is steam distilled from the wood, bark, or twigs of the Cinnamomum camphor tree, belonging to the Lauraceae botanical family," she explains. "Ho Wood is a linalool-rich essential oil and contains a high amount of this component. Known as a peaceful oil or oil of peace, Ho Wood's aroma is soothing, making one feel relaxed and calm, helping to reduce tension or stress-related headaches." It's formulated in L'Beauxtique's Evening Body Serum.
8. Japanese Mint
Japanese mint is also known as corn mint. Gyepi-Garbrah says it's amazing for the cooling effect when lightly massaged on the temple for headaches.
"One of the most versatile essential oils, lavender, is best known for its calming and relaxing effects," says Ellestad Van Somer. "When diffused or applied to the body, lavender works to relax the mind and body—two things that are especially helpful when experiencing a tension headache."
"Peppermint essential oil's active ingredient is menthol, which has long been used to treat different types of pain, including headaches," Ellestad Van Somer says. "Upon application, you'll notice peppermint has an immediate analgesic effect. This cooling oil also acts as a vasodilator, increasing blood flow to any area it's been applied."
LaPalm says that the aroma of peppermint oil can induce a relaxed state, so this and its analgesic and antispasmodic properties make it very beneficial for headaches.
12. Roman Chamomile
"From the Asteraceae (Compositae) botanical family, its essential oil is steam distilled from its flowers," LaPalm says. "Roman chamomile's aroma and analgesic and CNS (central nervous system) sedative properties can help relax and calm headaches and headache pain caused by tension and stress."
Gyepi-Garbrah adds that it's helpful if you're trying to relieve headaches at bedtime.
"Rose helps to relax the mind and body, and it balances hormones and your central nervous system," Ranavat says.
"Rosemary essential oil is a circulatory and nervine stimulant that has a warming effect and can ease muscular pain when applied to the skin," Ellestad Van Somer says. "Paired with a powerful cooling oil like peppermint, rosemary works to relieve soreness and tension."
Sandalwood clarifies and calms the mind, soothes stress and nervous tension, and uplifts the mood, according to Ranavat.
16. Sweet Basil
"Like lavender and peppermint, sweet basil is also from the Lamiaceae botanical family and is steam distilled from its leaves and flowering tops," LaPalm says. "The linalool chemotype contains a high content, making it ideal for headaches. One of the most common causes of headache is stress, and sweet basil essential oil can do a great deal to help lower stress levels, alleviate pain, and promote a feeling of calmness."
17. Sweet Marjoram
Sweet marjoram is known to relax muscles and provide anxiety relief, Gyepi-Garbrah says. It's also antispasmodic.
"Vetiver is sometimes referred to as the oil of tranquility because of its deeply calming effects," Ellestad Van Somer says. "Wonderfully supportive for rest and sleep, using vetiver can help you get the rest you need—something that can be hard to come by when experiencing a headache."