Essential oils are chemical compounds extracted from different parts of a plant, including its bark, leaves, flowers, buds, seeds, and more. In the simplest terms, they are the oils extracted from a given plant and used for different purposes depending on the plant and the benefits it can offer.
Thousands of plant species today have been identified, with hundreds of essential oils being sold commercially as:
Flavoring in food
Although it has only just recently become more widely known throughout the U.S., research has shown that essential oils date as far back as 4500 BC in ancient Egypt, between 3000 and 2000 BC in Chinese and Indian cultures, and between 500 and 400 BC in Greek history.
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According to a study,¹ essential oils can be extracted in several ways. However, the plant's characteristic properties play a strong role in the best method to use.
The two most popular techniques to extract essential oils are:
Using steam distillation
Using different solvents, including petroleum ether, animal fats, or vegetable oils
After extraction, the aromatic chemicals are often combined with a carrier oil—for example, coconut oil, sweet almond, olive, apricot, avocado oil, and more—to dilute and "carry" the oil over to your skin.
This additional step is important because essential oils in their purest form are more likely to cause unwanted side effects such as allergic contact dermatitis. Symptoms of this allergic reaction include rash, itching, irritation, swelling, tenderness, bumps, and blisters.
There are various signs and symptoms of migraine, varying from person to person. The most common during migraine attacks are:
Light, smell, and sound sensitivity
Pulsing and throbbing
There are also varying stages of a migraine attack that can produce their own related symptoms. For instance, studies provide the following stages of a migraine attack:
Prodromes can start anywhere from hours to days before your headache attack, showing up in symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, euphoria, depression, food cravings or lack of appetite, constipation, neck stiffness, uncontrollable yawning, and sensory sensitivities.
An aura starts just before or at the beginning of your attack, lasting about 20 to 60 minutes and involving mostly your vision (i.e., double vision or seeing bright lights, dots, or zigzags).
However, additional symptoms in this phase can also sometimes include muscle pain, tingling or numbness, and difficulties with speech.
After the headache attack, it's common to go through a phase recognized as the postdrome. In this stage, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, muscle pain, stiff neck, and difficulty concentrating.
Essential oils can help migraines in different ways. While some may stimulate more blood flow and reduce inflammation, others can relax muscles and help reduce the severity of your headache.
The process and your body's response to essential oils vary, depending as well on the method you take it in. For essential oil inhalation purposes, the scent goes into your nose, integrates with receptor cells, and navigates to the brain.
In response, your brain releases neuro messengers like endorphins and serotonin. These neuro messengers then have calming and relieving effects on your mind and body.
Several essential oils can help with migraines, but these five are considered the most effective. Choosing which one is best for you depends on your preferred fragrance and the goal you want to achieve.
Lavender essential oils are a popular choice for relieving migraine pain and symptoms. Lavender is associated with relaxation and stress relief due to its sedative and calming properties.
Researchers say that the inhalation of lavender essential oil requires more research but the science behind oral lavender is promising. Another study also supports the efficacy of lavender but recommends further research to be done.
Aside from its positive effects on learning, mood, memory, pain, sleep, and anxiety, rosemary oil is also known to reduce pain intensity after treatment.
Additional health benefits of rosemary can be found in its characteristic properties:
Oil from peppermint leaves is a popular topical method for relieving migraines because it contains menthol, an opioid-alternative pain reliever that dates back to ancient times. This, among other properties, helps your muscles relax and eases pain.
Additionally, one study found that peppermint essential oil can also increase your cognitive performance and elicit mentally and physically relaxing effects.
This can be significant news since some studies show that migraine patients have lower cognitive performances than controls. For instance, the report notes a decline in a patient's speed for processing information, verbal and visual memory impairment, executive dysfunction, and attention deficit.
Eucalyptus oil is another popular choice for migraines due to its sedative effects when it comes to inflammation, pain, and swelling. In fact, one animal study reported that eucalyptus oil produced morphine-like effects on relieving pain in mice.
This report had a primary focus on osteoporosis. However, combined with its previously mentioned benefits in a Science Direct issue, there's evidence that suggests it can be beneficial to use these oils for headaches. However, more research on migraines specifically is required.
Chamomile oil has been associated with several therapeutic effects, including the following:
Its anti-inflammatory properties, in particular, make chamomile oil a potential option for acute management as a pain reducer.
You can use essential oils orally, topically, or aromatically. However, oral administration is potentially riskier and should only be applied after you've spoken to a specialist and your doctor.
It is more common to use essential oils topically and aromatically for migraines.
Topical applications include rubbing the oil on certain areas where it will penetrate your skin and be absorbed into your bloodstream. For migraines, in particular, it is common for chronic headache patients to apply the topical oil directly on the forehead and temples, typically wherever you're experiencing the most pain.
For topical essential oils, it's important to remind you about the importance of the oils being combined with carrier oils. This will reduce unwanted skin reactions that pure essential oils often cause.
Another way to use essential oils for migraine relief is through aromatic methods. This consists of simply smelling its aroma, which initiates a reaction from the emotional center of your brain.
Aromatic lavender and other essential oils can be psychologically and emotionally beneficial in this application. Academic reviews such as the one done in 2015 found that inhalation of essential oils can release stress by unlocking "odor memories" and enhancing wellness, relaxation, calmness, and even rejuvenation.
Like with anything you inhale or absorb into your skin, essential oils have some potential risks to consider when using them to help with migraine headaches.
Take a look at some of them:
When applying an essential oil to your skin, there is always a risk of adverse side effects like an allergic reaction or skin irritation.
To avoid a severe reaction, avoid ingredients you know you're allergic to and implement the patch test on ingredients you have never been exposed to before. This test consists of putting the oil on a small patch of your skin to test whether you will have a reaction.
You should also always discuss with your doctor any and every essential oil ingredient you have already begun using or still plan to use.
Since essential oils have a combination of active volatile compounds in them, it is possible for them to interact with the efficacy of certain drugs, whether migraine-related or not. Your doctor will know best what, if any, essential oils you can safely use for headache relief without drug reactions.
Essential oils are far from the only way to reduce migraine headache pain and symptoms. In fact, it's important that you do not replace your doctor-prescribed migraine treatment plan with these oils.
While some studies have reported the advantages of lavender and other essential oils for migraine frequency and severity, there are more evidence-based and effective treatments you should consider.
Here are some of them:
Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are often first-line treatments for mild to moderate migraine headaches.
If these medications don't help relieve pain and symptoms, however, many doctors may prescribe a more migraine-specific drug for management.
Triptans—such as sumatriptan, rizatriptan, zolmitriptan, almotriptan, eletriptan, frovatriptan, and naratriptan—are a class of migraine-specific acute treatment drugs that are often prescribed for migraine headaches. They can be taken orally, through injection, or even by using a skin patch.
According to the Journal of Head and Face Pain,² the following are potential triggers for migraine and tension headaches:
Following a migraine diagnosis, it can be daunting to choose which treatments may be the best for you and your situation.
While an essential oil drop or inhalation of lavender, rosemary, peppermint, eucalyptus, and chamomile have been shown in some studies to make a substantial difference, more research on their efficacy is required. Doctor-prescribed treatments should never be replaced with essential oils without your doctor's knowledge.
You should always discuss the potential risks and reactions of using essential oils with your healthcare provider. Although these oils are known to improve stress responses and reduce pain, they can also cause allergic reactions or interact with drugs.
If you and your doctor decide essential oils are not the right solution for your migraines, there are other measures you can take to reduce the pain.
Essential oils from plants (2018)
Understanding migraine with aura | American Migraine Foundation
The migraine postdrome (2016)