Headaches come in all sorts of avatars, from your garden-variety dull throb to skull-blasting migraines replete with flashing lights. Whether you’re an occasional or frequent sufferer, a warm cup of herbal tea may ease your pain – sometimes, even as effectively as conventional medication! Nature’s bountiful garden of herbs offers a host of options and we’ve lined up some for you to consider.
But first, a quick look at what triggers headaches. Pain receptors in our head and neck, when stimulated by different factors, can set off a headache. Some common triggers include infections, extreme heat or cold, loud noise, injuries to the neck, head, or spine, or eye, ear, nose, and throat ailments. Other factors like high blood pressure, medication, diet, incorrect posture that strains the neck and back muscles, and hormonal changes can also cause headaches.1 While tackling your headache requires you to address the underlying cause, some natural remedies can ease the pain and discomfort.
Understand Herbal Tea Making
While some herbal tea recipes call for an infusion, others require decoctions. What’s the difference? With herbal teas, the part of the plant and method used determine whether you should make an infusion or a decoction.
- Leaves and flowers: Steep in just-boiled water from 5 to 20 minutes. This is an infusion.
- Roots, stems and barks: Boil in water for 5 to 30 minutes. This stronger, reduced solution is called a decoction.2
Here’s a list of 10 herbal teas that should help. However, don’t give these herbal preparations to small children without medical advice, as they could trigger allergic reactions or cause other side effects.
1. Ginger Tea
Prostaglandins are compounds that activate the body’s natural response – inflammation – to various ailments. Many herbs like ginger and feverfew block prostaglandins and help control pain.
Ginger is believed to ease tension-related headaches by blocking the release of pain-producing substances called prostaglandins in our bodies.3 Some headache sufferers have also found relief from migraine headaches that occur in the front of the head, and headaches caused by cold and windy weather.4
How to make: Boil 1.5 cups of water in a pan, add about 2 teaspoons of freshly sliced ginger and 2 teaspoons of brown sugar and simmer on a low flame for about 5 minutes. Strain the tea and drink hot. You can add honey instead of tea if you like though there is no need to heat honey. You can drink about 3 cups a day when you have a headache.5
A word of caution: Ginger is generally considered a safe herb but large amounts may cause mild heartburn, irritation in the mouth and diarrhea. Ginger can increase production of bile so people with gallstones should avoid ginger. The herb can increase bleeding too so it is best avoided by people taking blood thinners.6
2. Chamomile Tea
German chamomile contains an aromatic chemical compound called chamazulene that has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic, antipyretic, and antiseptic properties.7. German chamomile, in particular, is a popular folk medicine that aids in relaxation and pain relief. Drink chamomile tea for relief from tension headaches and anxiety.
How to make: Steep 1 tablespoon of fresh chamomile flowers or 2–3 teaspoons of dried flowers in a cup of freshly boiled water for 10–15 minutes. Strain and cool slightly before drinking. You can drink 3–4 cups a day between meals. Drinking too much chamomile tea can cause vomiting, so don’t go overboard.8
A word of caution: If you are allergic to either asters, chrysanthemums, daisies, or ragweed, you should avoid chamomile as it belongs to the same family. Chamomile is best avoided by pregnant women as it could up the risk of miscarriage. Do not consume chamomile without medical guidance if you are taking blood thinners, sedatives, high blood pressure or diabetes medicines, and hormonal medications as chamomile could interact with these.9
3. Feverfew Tea
Feverfew has wide-ranging therapeutic uses in folk medicine but is best known for its ability to both prevent and alleviate a migraine. Parthenolide, a compound found in this herb, is believed to do the trick, along with other substances that inhibit the body from releasing prostaglandins, prevent blood clotting, and ease the vascular muscles. While research studies are still on the fence about whether regular intake of feverfew helps reduce migraine. In some studies, people experienced no benefits, while in others, the herb was found to reduce the debilitating symptoms of migraine like nausea, noise and light sensitivity, and pain in the head.
How to make: Boil a cupful of water and steep 2-8 feverfew leaves in it. Drink this tea at least once every day. The leaves should not be boiled as boiling could break down the parthenolides.12
A word of caution: Feverfew can interact with your existing prescription drugs. For instance, if you are taking blood thinners, feverfew may increase the chances of bleeding. Also, medications that are broken down by the liver may interact with feverfew. It is best to speak to your doctor before trying it out. Pregnant women should not take feverfew as it can trigger contractions. Lactating women should not be given feverfew either.13
4. Peppermint Tea
Peppermint was a popular herbal remedy with the ancient Egyptians and continues to be used in the Middle East and Asia. It’s been listed for over 150 years in the United States Pharmacopoeia.14 The calming effect of peppermint has found use in a variety of ailments including headache, anxiety-related disorders, and gastric problems. Peppermint contains menthol and methyl salicylate, both of which have anti-spasmodic effects.15
How to make: Take 1 heaped teaspoon of dried peppermint leaves and steep in 1 cup of boiled water. Strain and cool. Have a cup of the tea 4–5 times a day between meals.16
A word of caution: Don’t serve peppermint tea to children under 12 years as it is known to induce a choking sensation in young children.17 Don’t drink peppermint tea if you have acid reflux. The herb’s relaxing effect works on the sphincter or opening between the stomach and esophagus, allowing acids to flow back into your stomach.18
5. Meadowsweet Tea
The scent of almonds pervades this herb. It helps to relieve headaches and bring down a fever. Meadowsweet contains salicin, the same compound that’s found in aspirin.19
How to make: Steep 1–2 teaspoons of dried meadowsweet flowers in an 8 oz. cup of boiled water. Steep for about 10 minutes, strain and drink. Add honey for taste. You can drink up to 3 cups a day.20
A word of caution: Do not drink meadowsweet tea in addition to taking aspirin or if you are allergic to aspirin. Also, the tea should not be given to children, unless a physician recommends it. Because of the chances of developing Reye syndrome, a serious condition associated with aspirin in children, children under 18 years of age should avoid meadowsweet.21
6. White Willow Bark
Aspirin or its herbal counterparts are not recommended for children with headaches arising out of viral infections, as they may develop Reye’s Syndrome, a condition that could potentially cause brain and liver damage.22
Willow bark has been known to ancient civilizations – the Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians, and Greeks. Native Americans too were aware of the healing properties of its bark, when brewed as a tea, to bring down fever, ease headaches, and relieve joint pains. White willow bark is a source of salicin, from which we get pain relieving salicylic acid.
How to make: To make this decoction, take 4 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons of dried flakes of willow bark and add to a pan containing 16 oz water. Cover the pan, simmer for 6 minutes. Strain the decoction. Have a cup of this tea thrice daily.
A word of caution: Like its modern relative aspirin, white willow bark tea may irritate the stomach lining. Consult a herbalist or naturopath if you have any existing gastrointestinal condition and proceed with care. Because of its aspirin-like property, willow bark should not be given to children under 18 years of age.23
7. Wintergreen Tea
Wintergreen is an evergreen shrub that is used in herbal medicine for a host of aches and pains including headaches. Historically, native Americans brewed the leaves of this herb into a refreshing tea. Methyl salicylate, found in wintergreen, is closely associated with aspirin.24
How to make: Place half a teaspoon of dried wintergreen leaves in a pot, pour in 4 oz of freshly boiled water. Cover and let it steep for just 3 minutes and strain. You can safely drink 2–3 cups a day. Wintergreen has a bitter flavor, so you may want to add a teaspoon of honey.25
A word of caution: Wintergreen is a powerful herb, best taken in small quantities – no more than half a cup at a time. And like meadowsweet and willow bark, since wintergreen has aspirin-like properties, the same precautions hold.26
8. Lemon Balm
A calming herb, lemon balm belongs to the mint family. Among its other uses, it has been known as a pain reliever and mild sedative since the Middle Ages. Its wrinkly leaves, when rubbed, give off a pleasantly tart aroma, much like lemon.27 Herbalists recommend lemon balm tea for migraine sufferers. Commission E, the advisory group that validates the safety of herbal medicines to the German government, also endorses the use of lemon balm to treat headaches.28
How to make: Steep 1 teaspoon dried lemon balm leaves in a cup of freshly boiled water. You can drink up to 4 cups of this tea daily.29
Here’s a variation: Add a dash of feverfew, ginger, and turmeric powder to this brew for variety. While the first two herbs are also popular remedies for headaches, turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties.30
A word of caution: Lemon balm may interact adversely with sedatives and thyroid medications – if you are undergoing treatment for these conditions, consult your physician before taking lemon balm tea. You should also avoid using lemon balm if you are on HIV medication as lemon balm’s interaction with antiretroviral drugs has not been sufficiently researched.31
9. Mixed Herb Tea
A combination of herbs can also help ease a throbbing head. Here’s a recommended mix:
Steep small quantities of cinnamon, rosemary, and peppermint in hot water for a few minutes. Strain and enjoy a steaming, aromatic cup of tea!32 Rosemary has a calming effect and can be used by itself for headache relief. Cinnamon works very well for headaches caused by colds. It can be used externally and consumed too. It adds a natural sweetness to your tea as well.33
10. Tulsi Tea
Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with Ayurveda would be aware of Tulsi or holy basil. This adaptogenic herb is blessed with many medicinal properties and is used extensively by ayurvedic physicians. Its anti-inflammatory properties make it perfect for pain relief. Tulsi tea can especially help with headaches and migraines. It also helps that it is safe and can be used by anyone.34
How to make: Take a handful of fresh tulsi leaves and boil in water to make a decoction. Cool and strain before drinking.
Regular Tea Helps Too, But Opt For Masala Chai For Headaches
Herbal teas notwithstanding, what’s wrong with putting the kettle on for a cup of plain old black tea to fix a headache? Nothing really, since tea, like many other ingredients – coffee, chocolate, colas – contains caffeine, the same ingredient included in both prescription and over-the-counter headache drugs to enhance the efficacy of pain relievers.35 The catch is that if you become habituated to too many cuppas, you could end up with a “rebound headache,” a consequence of excessive caffeine ingestion.
Generally speaking, someone with a headache can consume up to 200 mg of caffeine over a day. However, the National Headache Foundation cautions chronic headache sufferers against taking caffeine every day.
A 5 oz cup of black tea has about 11–25 mg of caffeine in it. The caffeine content also increases according to brewing time:
- 1-minute brew: 20–80 mg
- 3-minute brew: 21–33 mg
- 5-minute brew: 35–46 mg
So do your math before getting a cuppa for that headache and don’t go overboard.36 To make the most of it, add a healthy dose of spices to your tea. Try masala chai or spiced tea, a brew with tea, milk, water, and a touch of spices such as cinnamon, pepper, and cloves along with ginger.
|↑1||Headache. Better Health Channel.|
|↑2||Antol, Marie Nadine. Herbal Teas: How To Prepare and Use Teas to Maximize Your Health. Penguin, 1996.|
|↑3||Prostaglandins. Elmhurst College.|
|↑4||Zhao, Zhuo; Ellis, George. The Healing Cuisine of China: 300 Recipes for Vibrant Health and Longevity. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 1998.|
|↑5||Zhao, Zhuo; Ellis, George. The Healing Cuisine of China: 300 Recipes for Vibrant Health and Longevity. Inner Traditions / Bear & Co, 1998.|
|↑6||Ginger. University of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑7||Braun, Lesley, Cohen, Marc. Herbs & Natural Supplements: An Evidence-based Guide. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2010.|
|↑8, ↑9||German chamomile. University of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑10, ↑12, ↑14, ↑19, ↑20, ↑22, ↑23, ↑24, ↑25, ↑26, ↑28, ↑30, ↑32||Duke, James A. The green pharmacy: New discoveries in herbal remedies for common diseases and conditions from the world’s foremost authority on healing herbs. Rodale, 1997.|
|↑11, ↑13||Feverfew. University of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑15||Peppermint. University Of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑16, ↑18||Peppermint. University Of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑17||Michaud, Ellen, Hirsch, Anita. The Healing Kitchen. BenBella Books, Inc., 2009.|
|↑21||Willow bark. University Of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑27||Lemon Balm. University of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑29, ↑31||Lemon Balm. University of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑33||Billings, Samuel. The Big Book of Home Remedies. Lulu Press, 2013.|
|↑34||Therapeutic Effect Of Tulsi (Ocimum Sanctum Linn)In General And Oral Health. Ayurlog: National Journal of Research in Ayurved Science.|
|↑35||Shapiro, Robert E. “Caffeine and headaches.” Current pain and headache reports 12, no. 4 (2008): 311-315.|
|↑36||Does Caffeine Trigger or Treat headaches?. National Headache Foundation.|