You’re at your desk doing work, or sitting on the couch reading a book, or playing with your kids in the backyard, when it strikes: that nasty headache. Forget what you were trying to do—that throbbing pain in your noggin’ has other ideas.
Headaches, especially when experienced regularly and severely, aren’t just distracting—they can be downright debilitating. And if it feels like you suffer from them more often than, say, your BF or husband, it’s not your imagination: Women experience headaches (specifically migraines—those terrible headaches often accompanied by sensitivity to light, nausea, and fatigue) at a rate three times higher than men, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Doctors aren’t entirely sure why this is the case, but they do think our hormones have something to do with it.
For migraine sufferers, there are two types of medicinal therapies, according to Dr. Lawrence Newman, MD, professor of neurology and director of the Headache Division at NYU Langone Health. “We divide them into the preventative agents, things that are given on a daily basis to prevent future headaches, and acute medications, things that you take when you’re actually in the midst of a migraine to short circuit the attack,” he says.
Frequent migraine sufferers are often on a regimen of both preventive and acute medications.
Acute medications for mild headaches include over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol). For more severe headaches and migraines, a prescription drug from the triptan family (something like Imitrex, for example) is usually needed to help relieve co-symptoms like light sensitivity and nausea. (According to Dr. Newman, while ibuprofen and naproxen may help relieve a migraine, acetaminophen will not.)
Whether you’re suffering from a mild headache and looking for relief sans medication, or are wrestling with a particularly potent migraine and want to give your prescription a boost, there are plenty of DIY remedies to try.
Ahead, a handful of tactics to help relieve the pain and discomfort of a headache.
1. Log regular sleep.
When treating his patients, Dr. Newman recommends the S.E.E.D.S. approach—an acronym that stands for Sleep, Eat, Exercise, Drink, and Stress. Preventing migraines is all about maintaining a consistent routine, which *starts* with maintaining a regular sleep schedule. “That means on the weekends, you can’t sleep until 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” says Dr. Newman. Too little or too much sleep can also be a trigger. Most people should aim for between seven and eight hours of sleep a night, he says.
2. Eat well.
Your diet also plays a big role in headache hygiene. Dr. Newman recommends avoiding foods that trigger your headaches—things like sugar substitutes or aged cheeses, for example. “We also want them to eat regular meals,” he says. “It’s best if you eat three nice protein-based meals per day.” And be sure to keep healthy snacks, like almonds and raisins, on hand to ensure you’re getting plenty of fuel throughout the day.
3. Get adequate exercise.
“We want people with migraine to get aerobic exercise, at least three days a week, for at least 30 minutes at a time,” says Dr. Newman. The research bears this out: One study found that exercise’s ability to prevent migraines was on par with relaxation techniques and daily use of the drug topiramate. And, of course, exercise also releases endorphins, which is the body’s natural painkiller.
4. Watch what you drink.
Much like your diet, this point is two-fold, says Dr. Newman: First, avoid or limit drinking alcohol, and keep caffeinated beverages to no more than two cups a day to stave off headaches. Second, be sure to stay hydrated by gulping five to seven cups of water each day. (Dehydration is also a known migraine trigger.)
5. Reduce your stress levels.
This one’s probably no surprise, but stress can bring on headaches, so Dr. Newman prescribes some “me time” to all of his patients. “I tell them, man or woman, some time has to be for yourself,” he says. “Whether it’s going to the gym, walking around the block, reading a book, or talking to friends.” Whatever gives you that “ahhhhhh” feeling is all right for stress reduction.
6. Load up on vitamin B2.
“There are some good studies suggesting that relatively high doses of vitamin B2, which is riboflavin, can work as a prevention of migraine,” says Dr. Newman. “If you take a standard multivitamin, there’s about 16 milligrams of vitamin B2 in there. For migraine prevention, patients need anywhere from 200 to 400 milligrams per day of vitamin B2.” But before you gobble down extra B2, be sure to talk to your physician.
7. Or give magnesium a try.
Magnesium, in a 200 to 300 milligrams per day dose, is another supplement used as a migraine preventative. Magnesium can have side effects, however, like diarrhea, and Dr. Newman says those with heart conditions also need to be careful. Once again, check in with your doc.
8. If not, there’s always CoQ10.
One more supplement worth investigating is Coenzyme Q10, says Dr. Newman. “It’s a supplement that’s been shown to work around the 300 milligrams a day mark.”
9. Grab some ginger.
Ginger is another natural remedy effective in headache treatment. A 2014 study found that migraine patients who took ginger powder got the same level of relief as those who took the drug sumatriptan. And, as you may already know, ginger is also great for upset stomachs (hence all that ginger ale your mom gave you when you were sick as a kid), so it may also relieve some of the co-symptoms of migraine, like nausea and vomiting.
10. Consider acupuncture.
Acupuncture, the ancient Chinese alternative medicine involving the insertion of needles into specific parts of the body, has had a mixed reputation in the medical community. But a 2016 review of 22 clinical trials turned up promising findings.
According to the study’s authors, “If people have six days with migraine per month on average before starting treatment, this would be reduced to five days in people receiving only usual care, to four days in those receiving fake acupuncture or a prophylactic drug, and to three and a half days in those receiving true acupuncture.” In short, pokes aren’t necessarily just for creeps on Facebook!
11. Master biofeedback.
It may sound like something out of science fiction, but biofeedback—a technique that enables you to control some of your body’s responses—has been shown to reduce headache severity and frequency, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
“Biofeedback is a biggie,” says Dr. Newman. “There are exercises you can do to prevent the headache, as well as exercises you learn to do when a headache comes on to try and lessen the severity of headaches and hopefully avoid some medications or allow you to take fewer medications.” There are a number of different techniques that fall under this umbrella—everything from personal monitoring devices to yoga. Your doctor can help you figure out which one is right for you.
12. Get a rub down.
Massage is another non-pharmacological therapy that may ease headaches, says Dr. Newman. Rubbing the shoulders and neck could be beneficial, but definitely don’t get a scalp or head massage during the throes of a migraine—that will hurt, not help!
13. Pack on the heat or ice.
Depending on your preference, a cold compress or warm washcloth can lessen the ache. “Ice packs kind of numb the nerves,” says Dr. Newman, while cautioning that it probably won’t alleviate your pain completely.
14. Smell it later.
Verging into more woo-woo territory for headache relief is aromatherapy. While essential oils may not be for everybody, a 2016 study did find that peppermint oil had some positive effect on tension headaches. (Plus it will leave you smelling minty fresh—a bonus!).
15. Go easy on the perfume.
Conversely, some smells can actually trigger a migraine, so be careful about using heavily scented soaps or cleaning products and ask your partner to go light on the fragrance.
Bottomline, says Dr. Newman: “Just because [therapies are] not pharmacologic doesn’t mean they’re not capable of working. On the flip side, if the nonpharmacologic therapies are not working, it doesn’t mean that there are not other options. Things are always changing, meaning don’t give up if you haven’t found something that’s working. There are doctors who specialize in headache, and they are willing to try whatever it takes to help a patient with migraine.”