By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Out of all of the health complaints I’ve heard, one of the most common is about headaches. Whether sharp, dull, sinus, or stress-related, we can all do without the pain.
So how do we get rid of them?
Most people opt for a quick solution—usually a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as Advil, Motrin, or Aleve. All of these over-the-counter medications can provide temporary headache relief, but they come with more risks than you may realize.
Long-term or heavy use of NSAIDs may cause liver or kidney damage. All of them are notorious for causing bleeding in the GI tract. And the increased risk of heart attack and stroke they cause—a risk that can occur in the first weeks of use and then increase over time—even led the Food and Drug Administration to call for a special warning on the products’ labels. (This announcement came in 2015 after several observational studies and clinical trials.)
You don’t need to have heart disease or other risk factors to be in danger, either. Risk increases for everyone—although it’s especially high if you’ve had a heart attack in the past year. As I’ve long said, one of the problems with NSAIDS is that with daily use they can raise your blood pressure, a problem that can be especially risky for women.
Those drugs don’t sound so good anymore, do they? Fortunately, there are other natural and effective options for treating headaches.
Types of Headaches
In order to understand the best way to treat your headache, it’s important to know what type of headache you have. Some of the most common types are tension, migraines, and sinus.
Tension headaches typically feel like a constant ache or pressure around the head, especially at the temples or back of the head and neck. If you’ve ever used or heard the expression, “I feel like my head is in a vise,” that was a tension headache. Other distinguishing characteristics of these headaches are that they don’t usually cause nausea or vomiting, and people usually can continue with their daily activities.
Tension headaches are often associated with actual tension through the neck, head, and shoulders, but they’ve also been linked with changes in pain pathways, fatigue, dehydration, and even bad posture.
Unlike tension headaches, migraines can cause nausea and/or vomiting and are more likely to interfere with daily life. They can be genetic and defined by the following symptoms:
- At least five previous episodes of headaches
- Lasting between 4 and 72 hours
- At least two out of these four qualities: one-sided pain, throbbing pain, moderate-to-severe pain, or pain that interferes with, is worsened by, or prohibits routine activity
- Nausea or vomiting and/or sensitivity to light and sound
About one-fourth of people who have migraines experience an aura, visual distortions, or hand numbness before a migraine hits.
Sinus headaches are also very common. Sinus headaches occur when the sinus cavities become inflamed, often due to an infection. When you have a sinus headache, you may also have a fever, and your doctor may be able to see pus through a fiber-optic scope.
Sinus headaches differ from other headaches in that they can be treated with antibiotics, as well as antihistamines or decongestants.
The Benefits of Basil for Headaches
You may be surprised to hear that basil, an herb you’ll usually find on pizza, meat, and other foods (especially Italian ones), can help with your pounding headache. In fact, it’s one of my favorite treatments.
That’s because the basil plant, also known as Ocimum basilicum, is a healing herb. In India, Tulsi (also referred to as “Holy Basil”) is used to treat colds, coughs, the flu, anxiety, and more. I love basil because it’s a natural muscle relaxant with pain relieving properties.
Because basil is a muscle relaxant, it’s a good choice for tension headaches. The analgesic qualities can also make it helpful for soothing sinus pain.
How to Use Basil to Get Headache Relief
One of the best things about basil is that you can use it several ways. You can apply it directly to your body, inhale it, or consume it through food or beverages.
As a topical, you can massage basil oil into your temples or other areas for relief. Just be sure to mix your basil oil with a carrier oil like coconut oil and try a little dab to start, to make sure that sensitive skin on your face or neck won’t react to it.
Making a basil steam is one of my most refreshing tips. Add water and fresh basil or a few drops of basil oil to a pot and boil. Then drape a towel over your head and inhale the steam for 10–15 minutes. Be careful not to burn yourself, though!
Another popular way to get relief is drinking basil tea. In this case, a cup of tea a day is best. To make the tea, steep 3–4 fresh basil leaves in a cup of boiling water. For a hint of sweetness, add a teaspoon of honey.
As far as consuming basil goes, you have several options—not the least of which is chewing on a fresh basil leaf or two.
More likely, though, you’ll want to cook with it. Basil goes well with a lot of different dishes. A couple of my favorites are a grilled Mediterranean halibut dish and basil pesto sauce.
Halibut is filled with omega-3s that help to support healthy triglyceride levels and blood pressure, as well as your brain, joints, and skin. Plus, unlike tuna or swordfish, it’s extremely low in mercury and other contaminants.
One of my favorite ways to eat halibut is grilled. Pair it with broccoli and broiled sweet potatoes and you have a delicious, heart-healthy meal for four. Here’s what you need:
- 4 (5–6 oz.) halibut steaks
- Lemon juice from 1 lemon
- 2 T. olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- ½ tsp. of grated lemon peel
- 3 T. fresh basil, chopped
- 2 tsp. capers, drained
- Fresh ground pepper
Preheat grill. In a small bowl, whisk lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and lemon peel. Stir in capers and 2 tablespoons basil. Season halibut with pepper, then brush with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice mixture. Grill until cooked, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Whisk remaining vinaigrette and pour over fish. Garnish with remaining basil.
Basil pesto sauce is also a perfect addition to whole-grain pasta. This Italian-inspired accent also contains cashews, pine nuts, and olive oil. It’s also great on top of eggs or with cheese.
Other Natural Headache Relief Options
Aside from basil, there are a few other natural options to ease headache pain.
My first recommendation is water. Scientists have found that staying hydrated can reduce not only the severity of headaches, but also your chances of getting them.
Peppermint oil is another alternative. It has a soothing effect that may ease a headache. Like basil oil, combine it with a carrier oil and massage it on your temples, the back of your jaw, and your forehead.
Finally, don’t discount the ability of Earthing (also called “grounding”) to get rid of headache pain.
Earthing is a simple, inexpensive solution that connects you with the natural healing energy in the ground beneath your feet. I love it because it helps balance the autonomic nervous system, which governs your stress response. If tension headaches are your issues, Earthing could be a big help. Learn more about how you can start Earthing at home.
Don’t let headache pain keep you from enjoying your life. Try a little basil or these natural alternatives to NSAIDs, and they’ll not only help your headache, but save you from other health risks as well.
- Food Matters. 11 Natural Remedies to Relieve Headaches (Drug-Free)!. Accessed December 5, 2017.
- Ghaly, M and Teplitz, D. The biologic effects of grounding the human body during sleep as measured by cortisol levels and subjective reporting of sleep, pain, and stress. J Altern Complement Med. 2004 Oct;10(5):767-76.
- Health. 5 Types of Headaches. Accessed December 5, 2017.
- Sinatra, ST. How to Handle Tension, or Stress, Headaches. HeartMD Institute. Accessed December 13, 2017.
- Sinatra, ST. Is Medication the Only Relief for Migraines? HeartMD Institute. Accessed December 5, 2017.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA Drug Safety Communication: FDA strengthens warning that non-aspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can cause heart attacks or strokes. 9 Jul 2015. Accessed December 13, 2017.
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