5 Natural Headache Remedies, Backed by Science

Your noggin will thank you.

Headaches are a real pain. But that annoying—and let's face it, sometimes insufferable—pounding is quite common. According to the World Health Organization, as many as three-quarters of adults between the ages of 18 and 65 have had a headache in the last year. The pain "can be classified into primary disorders, like migraines or tension headache, or secondary headaches, which are due to something else, such as trauma to the head or strokes," explains Jocelyn Bear, MD, a board-certified neurologist based in Colorado.

Not all headaches are built the same; there are several types. Tension, one of the most common forms, affecting up to 70 percent of the population per the original WHO report, presents as pain located on both sides of the head in a pressure type sensation. Migraines, also common, affect 39 million people in the United States, and are severe, with throbbing pain on one side of the head and often accompanied by nausea and light or sound sensitivity. Cluster, a rare type that involves severe pain on one side of the head, usually around the eye or temple and often includes symptoms such as a drooping eyelid, redness of or tearing of the eye. And sinus, pain located in the cheeks or the forehead.

Each headache variation comes with different triggers, "though common triggers include stress, weather changes, skipping meals, lack of sleep, dehydration, and alcohol," says Adelene E. Jann, MD, headache medicine specialist and clinical assistant professor of neurology at NYU Langone Health. No matter your type, "any headache that comes on very quickly—like a 'thunderclap'—or is associated with neurological symptoms like weakness or numbness on one side of the body, or associated with high fever should be evaluated emergently," Dr. Jann says. "If headaches have been worsening over time, becoming more severe and more frequent, start interfering with your day, or stop responding to over-the-counter treatments, then evaluation by a doctor should be considered."

When it comes to easing aches, many turn to over-the-counter medications. Popping pills, though, can also be a culprit for chronic headaches, says Dr. Bear. "Medication overuse headaches can occur if someone takes too much pain medication—often using medications on a daily basis," explains Dr. Jann. "The headache may improve for a short period of time, but then return when the medication wears off."

Good thing medication isn't the only remedy. There are also plenty of natural ways to alleviate a headache, depending on the type of headaches you get. Here are five science-backed methods worth trying.

01 of 05

Hike Up Your Hydration

There are plenty of reasons why folks are encouraged to get their fill of water. It can regulate your body temperature, keep joints lubricated, deliver nutrients to cells, and leave your skin looking radiant and youthful. It can also be a useful remedy in nixing migraines. A study in the European Journal Neurology shows that folks who sipped on an extra 1.5 liters of water per day experienced fewer hours of headaches as well as less intense ones in a two-week period when compared with those who were given placebo migraine medication. What's more, drinking enough water can also relieve head pain in as little as 30 minutes.

02 of 05

Don't Skimp on Sleep

We all know the repercussions of not getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night: fatigue, bad mood, a failing memory, weakened immune system, and the list goes on. Lost time between the sheets could also be the reason your head won't stop throbbing. According to research in the journal Medicine, those with poor sleep quality experienced a higher frequency of headaches. And if you aren't racking up REM sleep, which occurs about 60 to 90 minutes into a sleep cycle, your headache may actually be even more painful. To set yourself up for sleep success, and in turn keep headaches at bay, try "adjusting your sleep schedule to get plenty of restorative sleep," advises Dr. Bear. Other useful hacks: shutting down your smart devices at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime and limiting caffeine intake throughout the day. Here are more healthy habits for good sleep hygiene.

03 of 05

Sweat It Out

While exercising may be the last thing on your mind when a headache arises, a little movement may make all the difference. When you sweat, your body releases endorphins, dopamine, and nor-adrenaline, all of which act as natural painkillers and modulate the body's pain response, explains Michele Olson, PhD, CSCS, a senior clinical professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala. "The effect of endorphins, dopamine, and nor-adrenalin last for about two hours," says Olson.

How much time do you need? Just 40 minutes, according to one study published in the journal Cephalalgia. Getting sweaty for this amount of time three times a week elicited a response equal to those who took a daily preventive migraine medication. It also was more effective at reducing migraines than those who tried relaxation techniques. You can also strike a yoga pose. Not only is it a great way to improve flexibility and relieve stress, but getting bendy for three months proved to be effective in reducing migraine frequency and intensity.

One small caveat: Exercise can also cause migraines. "It is theorized to be due to the natural increase in blood pressure that occurs during exercise—especially heavy weight lifting or super intense cardio workouts," says Olson. However, in the long run, "keeping up regular exercise helps to maintain a lower, healthier blood pressure overall and also helps relieve stress on a regular basis, preventing pent up stress that can affect many things from your GI system to headaches and anxiety."

RELATED: 4 Pressure Points That Can Quickly Soothe a Headache

04 of 05

Get Enough Magnesium

Consider adding more magnesium into your diet, which can help prevent migraines, says Dr. Jann, which makes sense considering about half of the U.S. population are deficient in this mineral, and research shows that those with lower levels of magnesium often have migraines. Research also shows that being deficient "promotes cortical spreading depression, alters nociceptive processing and neurotransmitter release, and encourages the hyper aggregation of platelets," all of which play a role in the onset of migraines.

While magnesium supplements are an option, you should talk to your doctor for their guidance before taking a new supplement. Even easier is to try upping your intake of magnesium-rich foods, such as almonds, spinach, and black beans. Dr. Jann also says riboflavin (B2)— found in foods such as eggs, salmon, chicken breast, almonds, spinach—can help too. One study in European Journal Neurology confirms this, noting that people who took 400 milligrams per day had 50 percent fewer headaches than those who did not.

05 of 05

Step Away From Your Screens

These days life revolves around our computer screens, whether reviewing documents, scrolling through social media, or joining in your 50th Zoom call of the day. Exposure to blue light, which dramatically increased over the pandemic, "can cause damage to our retinas over time, and is believed to contribute to vision problems like macular degeneration, explains ophthalmologist Kara Hartl, MD, FACS. But one of the more immediate symptoms that can occur as a result is headaches. To help keep a pounding noggin at bay, "investing in screen protectors for your computers or tablets is crucial," says Dr. Hartl. You may also consider activating night mode on your computer, phone, and tablet, "since night mode decreases screen brightness and reduce eye strain in the process." Limiting screen time by taking a break every 20 minutes is also beneficial for keeping headaches to a minimum.

RELATED: Does Staring at a Screen Make You Nauseous? You Can Blame 'Cybersickness'

Was this page helpful?
Real Simple is committed to using high-quality, reputable sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we fact check our content for accuracy.
  1. Spigt MG, Kuijper EC, Schayck CP, et al. Increasing the daily water intake for the prophylactic treatment of headache: a pilot trial

    Eur J Neurol. 2005;12(9):715-718. doi:10.1111/j.1468-1331.2005.01081.x

  2. Lin YK, Lin GY, Lee JT, et al. Associations between sleep quality and migraine frequency: a cross-sectional case-control study. Medicine (Baltimore). 2016;95(17):e3554. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000003554

  3. Ahn AH. Why does increased exercise decrease migraine? Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013;17(12):379. doi:10.1007/s11916-013-0379-y

  4. Varkey E, Cider A, Carlsson J, Linde M. Exercise as migraine prophylaxis: a randomized study using relaxation and topiramate as controls. Cephalalgia. 2011;31(14):1428-38. doi:10.1177/0333102411419681

Related Articles