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How Aromatherapy Can Relieve Migraines
Before we go any further, let's get a few things straight: While aromatherapy has increased in prevalence in our current wellness-obsessed world, this "trend" is far from new. A major player in two of the world's most ancient medicinal practices, Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, aromatherapy refers to the practice of using essential oils (the most concentrated extracts from plants) to heal an array of ailments.
When we smell essential oils, we literally ingest their particles into our lungs and our brain, where they affect the central nervous system before making their way into our bloodstream, explains aromatherapy expert Hope Gillerman, author of Essential Oils Every Day. "Then they interact with the endocrine system (hormones) and even our organs," she says. This immediate entry into our bodies makes them uniquely potent—especially for their ability to offer quick relief.
While "little research has been done on aromatherapy in the treatment of migraines," there are many patients for whom aromatherapy helps, explains neurologist and migraine specialist Susan Broner, M.D., assistant professor of clinical neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College. (Related: The Benefits of Using Essential Oils, According to the Latest Research)
Peppermint Essential Oil for Migraines
Peppermint reigns supreme when it comes to using aromatherapy for migraines. Why's it so magical? From the second you apply it, you'll feel a tingling feeling—"it simultaneously relaxes tension and stress, while stimulating circulation and healing," explains Gillerman. After all, "the menthol contained in peppermint is used in almost all topical pain relievers," she says, noting that "a 2007 study comparing peppermint to Tylenol showed there was no significant difference in effectiveness between peppermint oil and acetaminophen, and no adverse effects were reported. (Related: 7 Essential Oils for Anxiety and Stress Relief)
Note that peppermint oil is very strong so be sure to keep it away from your face (and babies and pets) and hold off on using it if you're pregnant.
Lavender Essential Oil for Migraines
Like peppermint, "lavender is a highly versatile oil to use topically for pain and to relax muscles and inhale or diffuse for stress and anxiety," says Gillerman. It has a long history of blending well with peppermint for migraines.
"Some studies have found that the use of aromatherapy, particularly lavender essential oil, reduced pain levels," says Dr. Broner. Though it's unclear why it helps, it is possible "that the connection between fibers in the olfactory system (which regulates our sense of smell) and the trigeminal nucleus, which is one of the main regulators of migraine activity, may account for lavender's effectiveness," she adds.
Guidelines for Using Essential Oils for Migraines
It's a good idea to consult your physician before incorporating essential oils into your routine, but Dr. Broner recommends several ways to ensure that you're playing it safe when using these treatments.
- "Stick to pure essential oils, without added chemicals, as harsh or even artificial chemical odors can trigger migraines," says Dr. Broner.
- While lavender and peppermint are the most popular migraine options, it's important to find a scent you like since "not everyone responds positively to the same odors." And since migraine sufferers often have a heightened sensitivity to scent, introduce aromatherapy cautiously—and skip it if the smells are too strong for you, she says.