5 Natural Remedies for Headaches, 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 had a headache in 2015. The pain "can be classified into primary disorders, like migraines or tension headaches, 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 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 is 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 and redness or tearing in the eye. And sinus headaches: Pain located in the cheeks or the forehead.

Man holds a pink ice pack to his head

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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 headache reliefs and ways to alleviate pain, depending on the headache type you experience. Here are five science-backed methods worth trying.

01 of 05

Increase Hydration

Person drinking a glass of water

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There are plenty of reasons folks are encouraged to get their fill of water. It can regulate body temperature, keep joints lubricated, deliver nutrients to cells, and leave skin looking radiant and youthful. It can also be a valuable remedy for nixing migraines. A study in the European Journal of 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.

02 of 05

Get Sufficient Sleep

older woman sleeping in bed

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We all know the repercussions of not getting enough sleep each night: fatigue, bad mood, a failing memory, a weakened immune system, and more. The 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 be even more painful.

To set yourself up for sleep success and keep headaches at bay, try "adjusting your sleep schedule to get plenty of restorative sleep," advises Dr. Bear. Other useful hacks: shut down devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime and limit caffeine intake throughout the day. Try these healthy habits for good sleep hygiene.

03 of 05

Sweat It Out

Person Stretching on Floor While Doing Yoga

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, Ph.D., CSCS, a senior clinical professor of sports science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. "The effect of endorphins, dopamine, and nor-adrenalin lasts 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 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."

04 of 05

Get Enough Magnesium

Almonds in bowl set against a white background

 Romona Robbins Photography / Getty Images

Consider adding more magnesium into your diet, which can help prevent migraines, says Dr. Jann. Half of the U.S. population is deficient in this mineral, and research shows that those with lower magnesium levels often have migraines. Research also indicates 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 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, and spinach—can help too. One study in the European Journal of 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 Screens

woman on her phone in bed at night
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These days life revolves around screens, whether reviewing documents, scrolling through social media, or joining in your 50th video call of the day. Exposure to blue light "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.

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