Natural Treatments for Headaches & Migraine

One of the most common symptoms that I encounter in my practice is headaches and migraines.

One of the most common symptoms that I encounter in my practice is headaches and migraines. Although some headaches can be linked with a serious medical condition, most headaches are not serious. They can, however, have a serious impact on quality of life.  Luckily, treatment with acupuncture is extremely effective.  I remember the first day I started practicing being faced with a patient who had suffered from chronic and debilitating migraines for more than 20 years.  Although I had excellent and thorough training, treating this case seemed very daunting.

However, to my surprise, this lady’s migraines became more infrequent and less intense until she stopped coming for treatment entirely.  Being new in practice, I was anxious that she had not returned because the treatment had not worked.  One year later, this same lady was back in the treatment room, this time for an arthritic knee.  She had not suffered from another migraine! Very quickly I became more confident that acupuncture worked very well for headaches and migraines.

Tension headache or migraine?

Most headaches are the result of tension in the muscles of the neck and scalp.  Tension headaches give pain that is steady, constant and dull in nature. We can quickly identify these by the worsening of pain when pressing on trigger points on the neck/scalp.  In contrast, migraines present with throbbing, stabbing or pounding pain.  Migraines are often accompanied by light sensitivity and nausea.  Other types of headache may originate from the organs.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) it is thought that headaches and migraines arise as a result of several factors including constitution, emotional strain, overwork, diet, accidents, childbirth or pathogens.


Headaches that arise from constitutional reasons usually begin in childhood, commonly between the ages of 7 to 10.  This is the result of the parent’s health at the time of conception or the conditions of the mother’s pregnancy.  The use of certain medications or drugs at the time of conception can also create the tendency for headaches.


Emotions are very frequently the cause for many headaches.   Most commonly frustration and resentment typically give headaches along the Gall Bladder channel on the temple or side of the head.  “Worry” headaches are usually situated on the forehead or the top of the head and are dull in character.  These headaches are linked to an uneven flow of Heart and Lung Qi.  Anxiety headaches usually affect the whole head, although anxiety can indirectly lead to temple headaches too.

Liver-type headaches are usually caused by anger, frustration or stress.  These headaches manifest in two ways: either by raging when the stress is on, or they commonly appear as soon as the person rests and are often known as ‘weekend’ headaches.


Working long hours, especially doing mental work, or long hours in front of a computer screen depletes the body of Spleen Qi and Kidney Yin resulting in headaches on the whole head or migraine-type headaches on the side of the head.


Diet is very important in treating headaches as many headaches stem directly from poor nutrition and respond very quickly to dietary adjustments.  Just as under eating or malnutrition will cause headaches (top of the head), over-eating leads to headaches on the forehead.

Liver-Fire and Stomach-Heat headaches are worsened by hot-energy foods such as alcohol, curry, spices and red meat. These are generally sharp headaches on the front or side of the head.

Dull headaches on the forehead are usually caused by dampness and this is worsened by foods that produce damp such as dairy, greasy foods, bananas, sugar and peanuts. Can you imagine what a peanut butter and syrup sandwich would do for this type of headache?

Kidney deficiency headaches result in dull headaches which spread over the whole head or the back of the head.  The kidney does not like excessive salt and as a result, this kind of headache tends to worsen with packaged and processed foods such as cereals, tinned soups, sausages etc.

Liver-type headaches are aggravated by sour foods such as citrus, pickles, vinegar, sour berries and spinach.

The way in which food is eaten also plays a major role in TCM.  Food should be eaten in a relaxed environment, and food chewed slowly and thoughtfully.  Eating under stressful conditions or when in a rush leads to a reduction of stomach function which can result in headaches on the forehead.

Food Sensitivities

Food sensitivities are a more modern concern.  Never before in history of mankind has food undergone as much manipulation.  Our foods are grown quicker with steroids and hormones, they are chemically altered to improve crop yield.  They are processed, manipulated, preserved and packaged.  All of this has added a myriad of chemicals into the food chain.  The result is an upsurge in food sensitivities seen in the population today.  The body, being inundated with a variety of chemicals

Hormonal Headaches

Many headaches are closely related to the menstrual cycle and can be predicted at specific times.  Hormonal headaches in TCM are treated differently depending on when they start: before, during or towards the end of the period.   These types of headaches must be treated along side hormone balancing treatments to have lasting effects. Hormone testing may be required to pinpoint the exact imbalance.

Words of Caution:

Chronic use of aspirin and other pain relievers can do damage to the liver which creates a cycle of escalating headaches.  Use these with great caution.  

When to worry:

  • Acute headaches that begin with a viral infection may result in meningitis or cerebral haemorrhage.  If your headaches are accompanied by fever, vomiting and neck rigidity this is considered a medical emergency and requires immediate medical intervention.
  • If headaches become progressively worse in terms of frequency, duration and intensity and are accompanied by vertigo or dizziness, it is essential that you consult with your GP.

General Guidelines for those suffering from headaches:

  • Avoid caffeine (including coffee, tea and chocolate):
  • To support the liver, use Dandelion coffee or tea
  • Caffeine avoidance my initially aggravate headaches, but this is just as a result of withdrawal. Persevere and withdrawal headaches will subside in about a week.
  • Avoid sour foods:
  • Vinegar, wine, rhubarb, spinach, sour berries, citrus and sour fruits
  • Avoid other common triggers:
  • Cheese, chocolate, beer and red wine can trigger migraine-type headaches
  • Other triggers include dairy, wheat, egg, benzoic acid, tomato, tartrazine, rye and shellfish.
  • Get enough rest
  • Deficiency-type headaches are always exacerbated by lack of sleep
  • Don’t oversex
  • TCM advises moderating sexual activity and does not recommend having sex more than 3 times a week
  • Avoid emotional stress
  • TCM considers emotional stress to be a major contributor to headaches.  Stress reduction techniques such as Qigong, yoga and meditation are very valuable in eliminating headaches.
  • Acupuncture is very effective in treating headaches and migraine:
  • Results are often achieved anywhere between 2-12 sessions.  If the headaches are severe, and have been there for many years then treatment may take a little longer.
  • Avoid food sensitivities:
  • Get tested for food sensitivities and make sure you really do avoid the foods that trigger your headaches
  • Try natural remedies:
  • There are many different natural remedies such as Feverfew and milk thistle that are beneficial, depending on the nature of your headache.  Speak to your therapist to find the most beneficial remedy for you.
  • Hormonal headaches?
  • If there is a link to your hormonal cycle, get your hormones tested.  Genova diagnostics laboratory does cyclic testing to determine hormone imbalances. Knowing the exact problem can save you hundreds of pounds on treatments in the long-run.
  • Vitamin deficiency:
  • Magnesium plays a very important role in maintaining the tone of blood vessels and prevent over-excitability of nerve cells. Headaches and migraines commonly occur because of magnesium deficiency.  Supplement with 250mg Magnesium citrate three times a day.  Switch to transdermal magnesium if bowels become loose on oral supplementation.
  • Vitamin B6 deficiency can also give headaches.  Supplement with 25mg three times/day.
  • 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) has been shown to help both migraines and headaches through its action of increasing serotonin levels.

How does Acupuncture help headaches?

Acupuncture uses fine needles to stimulate (or reduce) energy flow in the meridians. Depending on the imbalance that is diagnosed, specific points will be used to correct the underlying contributing pattern.  Acupuncturists use information gained from feeling the pulse, looking at your tongue and listening to your symptoms to determine the best treatment pattern for you.