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How to Use Essential Oils for Migraines

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For the past 20+ years I've had nearly daily migraines. The thing is, often conventional medicines don't work. So, I've come to rely on an ever-increasing array of natural treatments. But since I can't spend my entire life at an acupuncture appointment, I've sought remedies that fit into my portable pharmacy, accessible at home, at work, and everywhere in between. Enter: aromatherapy (aka essential oils), increasingly being used as an on-the-go migraine treatment.

Here, everything you need to know if you want to add essential oils to your migraine-relief routine.

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.

  1. "Stick to pure essential oils, without added chemicals, as harsh or even artificial chemical odors can trigger migraines," says Dr. Broner. 
  2. 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.
  3. "When using a topical agent, make sure it's something gentle that won't harm or burn the skin," advises Dr. Broner. There are a number of ways to use essential oils, but many are not intended for direct application to the skin. (Related: You're Using Essential Oils All Wrong—Here's What You Should Be Doing

The Best On-the-Go Aromatherapy Treatments to Buy for Migraines

As a writer, I'm often hunched over in a chair staring into the harsh light of my laptop, sometimes mid-migraine—sound familiar? I've tried countless aromatherapy options, and here now have a carefully curated collection for when a migraine hits. Here are some expert-approved remedies I stuff in my bag. (Related: The Best Essential Oils You Can Buy On Amazon)

1. Hope Gillerman Tension Remedy (Buy it, $48)

Hope Gillerman's products are informed by their creator's private practice in which she combines aromatherapy with essential oil to help clients treat pain. The key ingredients, unsurprisingly, are peppermint and lavender. (She recommends combining this with her Muscle Remedy, a roll-on that goes across your shoulder and down the nape of your neck.)

How to use: Reach behind your ear lobe and locate the bumpy ridge. Then, move your fingers below that and towards your spine. If you put pressure on the spot, you'll notice it's a sensitive one. Tap the Tension Remedy there three times to allow the peppermint to help relieve pain, Gillerman says.

2. Saje Peppermint Halo (Buy it, $27)

Canada's most beloved aromatherapy brand is growing stateside and their top seller—Peppermint Halo—has held prime real estate in my bag from the moment I discovered it almost a year ago. Again—peppermint and lavender are key parts of the remedy, though rosemary (another stress reliever) is too. The peppermint in this one is not playing around—which is precisely why it's become one of my favorites.

How to use: I carefully roll it on at my hairline and down my neck—something you sort of need to commit to because you'll smell minty and feel its tingle for a while after applying.

3. Sagely Relief & Recovery Roll-On (Buy it, $30)

The key differentiator here is not an essential oil—it's CBD. This most zeitgeisty ingredient supports its aromatherapy co-stars. In addition to peppermint and rosemary, this formula also includes one of my personal favorites—eucalyptus.

How to use: A major plus is that it's gentle enough that you can apply to tense temples without the fear of burning your eyes! It can also be used on the neck, forehead, and shoulders for cooling and relief.

4. Naturopathica Re-Boot Alchemy (Buy it $29)

Unlike the others, it's meant for inhalation—a simple, quick aromatherapy ritual. While there's peppermint in this formula, it also has a strong zing from lemongrass and ginger. But the true hero ingredient here is Holy Basil, which is yet another natural topical muscle relaxer, with a long history in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Look for it in pre-diluted formulas.

How to use it: It comes in a dropper bottle, which you use to dispense about three drops into the palm of your hands. Cup your hands to your face (as if you're about to sneeze) and take at least five slow deep breaths.

The Best At-Home Aromatherapy Treatments for Migraines

Like with Western medicine, you can use aromatherapy differently based on whether you're aiming to treat preventively or in the throes of pain. Creating a wellness-oriented environment might not be a miracle cure, but as frequent migraine-sufferers know all too well—sometimes it's the little things that help the big picture.

1. Naturopathica Nebulizing Diffuser (Buy it, $125)

If you're not too sensitive to fragrance (obviously, many migraineurs are, so don't use anything you think could only make you feel worse!), try diffusing EO's to help reduce migraine-eliciting stress or trouble sleeping. This fancy diffuser (an investment at $125) is a new obsession of mine. While ordinary diffusers are lovely (and effective too), the power of EOs is diluted they're when mixed with water, which also makes them harder to actually inhale if you're congested! The nebulizing diffuser dispenses with the water chamber altogether (also a perk if you're too lazy to get out of bed) and takes straight, single essential oils and converts them into tiny particles that can reach up to 800 square feet. (Related: Bestselling Essential Oil Diffusers, According to Thousands of Five-Star Amazon Reviews)

2. The Essential Oils

You can use the same migraine-approved oils for scenting a room too, or experiment (there are tons of single-origin, pure scents, which are far less likely to trigger a headache than a department store floor fragrance). I swear by Vitruvi's Organic Eucalyptus Essential Oil, which is revitalizing and one of the best oils to inhale to decongest sinuses and reduce sinus pressure (yet another migraine trigger), Gillerman says.

Of course, you can use the famous peppermint, too—try Naturopathica's Organic Peppermint Essential Oil. You can blend either with lavender (like Vitruvi's Organic Lavender Essential Oil) for a simultaneously zen but energized vibe, or just use lavender on its own to keep things calm. While you can drop the aforementioned Vitruvi Eucalyptus oil in the shower, you can also add a diluted (safe for contact with skin) aromatherapy blend to your body lotion or oil—like Bath & Body Works Lavender 3-in-1 Aromatherapy Essential Oil. You'll feel it as soon as you breathe in.

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