Lavender or Peppermint Essential Oils for Headache or Migraine

Woman smelling essential oil

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Using an essential oil, like lavender or peppermint, to help alleviate a migraine or tension headache is becoming an increasingly popular practice. While the jury is still out on its benefit (the research backing up their effectiveness is scant), under the right circumstances and for the right person, it may be a sensible approach. If anything, essential oils may help your discomfort indirectly by calming and relaxing you.

There are two essential oils specifically that may be helpful—lavender, which may help with a migraine, and peppermint, which may help with a tension-type headache.

Lavender

Lavender has been used throughout ancient history for its calming properties. In addition, it was used for its healing purposes to treat migraine attacks, as well as epilepsy, insect bites, parasitic infections, burns, and tremor. 

This practice of using lavender to treat migraine attacks has now re-emerged, and there is scientific evidence (albeit limited) to back up its use.

Scientific Evidence

In one small study, 47 participants with migraine were divided into two groups. One group inhaled lavender essential oil for 15 minutes in the early stages of their attack (two to three drops of the oil was rubbed onto their upper lip). The other group (the control group) used liquid paraffin for 15 minutes.

The participants were asked to record the severity of their migraine headache in 30-minute intervals for a total of two hours.

Using a pain scale called the Visual Analog Scale, the participants who inhaled the lavender essential oil had a significantly greater reduction in migraine headache severity compared to the control group.

Safety

According to this study, the short-term use of lavender appears to be well-tolerated and safe. However, it's important to note that there have been reports of lavender being associated with estrogen and anti-androgen effects.

In fact, in one report, gynecomastia was reported in three healthy, prepubertal boys after applying lavender and tea tree oils. While the gynecomastia resolved shortly after discontinuation of the oils, this hormone effect is something to keep in mind.

An allergy to lavender oil has also been reported, as has some nonserious adverse effects (mostly related to infections) in people who take oral lavender.

Lastly, ingestion of lavender during pregnancy is contraindicated, as it can stimulate menstruation.

The take-home message here is that in the short-term, inhaled lavender essential oil may be a reasonable complementary therapy for soothing the pain of a migraine attack. That said, the research supporting its use is scant—additional and larger studies are needed to confirm whether there is a medicinal benefit to lavender oil.

Peppermint

Peppermint is a flowering member of the mint family, which grows throughout Europe and North American.

While extracts of peppermint are often used as flavoring (e.g., toothpaste or mouthwashes), peppermint oil, which is extracted from the mint plant's stem, leaves, and flowers, has been used to treat gastrointestinal ailments, most notably irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and indigestion.

Peppermint oil has also been used to treat headaches, especially tension-type headaches.

Scientific Evidence

Two older studies found that applying peppermint oil to the skin is effective in easing the pain of a tension-type headache. One of those studies even compared the effectiveness of a 10% peppermint oil preparation with Tylenol (acetaminophen). 

In that study, 41 participants with tension-type headache were randomized to either receive two capsules equaling 1,000 milligrams (mg) of Tylenol or two placebo capsules. In addition, the participants randomly received either a skin application of peppermint oil or a placebo solution.

The oil or placebo solution was spread across the forehead and temples and repeated after 15 minutes and then 30 minutes. The participants then recorded their pain intensity every 15 minutes for one hour.

Compared to placebo, the peppermint oil significantly reduced headache intensity after 15 minutes, and this reduction in pain continued over the one hour observation period. Interestingly, there was no difference found in the benefit between the peppermint oil and Tylenol. 

Safety

While there were no adverse effects from peppermint oil reported in the above study, it's important to note that peppermint oil can be toxic and, at high doses, even fatal.

Moreover, in other scientific studies, peppermint oil has been linked to several adverse effects, such as:

  • Allergic reaction
  • Heartburn
  • Burning around the anal area
  • Blurry vision
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Kidney failure

In addition, peppermint oil is contraindicated in people with a history of gallstones or gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis), and since it can trigger menstruation, peppermint oil should be avoided during pregnancy.

Lastly, peppermint oil should also not be ingested or used near the face of babies and children, as it can lead to breathing problems.

Topical peppermint oil may ease your tension-type headaches, and may even be as effective as Tylenol. Although as with lavender essential oil, this study is small—larger studies are needed to confirm such a finding.

A Word From Verywell

While using an essential oil, like lavender or peppermint, to help soothe a migraine or headache attack is a reasonable complementary therapy, it's important to be sure you are only using under the guidance of your physician.

Even though essential oils do not require a prescription, they can be toxic and cause harm if used improperly or in individuals with certain medical conditions. They may also interfere with medications you are taking and, for some people, that particular essential oil scent could paradoxically trigger a headache or migraine.

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Article Sources

  1. Sasannejad P, Saeedi M, Shoeibi A, Gorji A, Abbasi M, Foroughipour M. Lavender essential oil in the treatment of migraine headache: a placebo-controlled clinical trial. Eur Neurol. 2012;67(5):288-91. doi:10.1159/000335249

  2. Henley DV, Lipson N, Korach KS, Bloch CA. Prepubertal gynecomastia linked to lavender and tea tree oils. N Engl J Med. 2007 Feb 1;356(5):479-85. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa064725

  3. Gobel H, Fresenius J, Heinze A, Dworschak M, Soyka D. Effectiveness of Oleum menthae piperitae and paracetamol in therapy of headache of the tension type. Nervenarzt. 1996 Aug;67)8):672-81.

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