If you have migraines, you’ve probably heard about alternative medicine. This refers to treatments that are used instead of traditional, or mainstream, medicine. You might hear them called complementary treatments or integrative or holistic medicine. They include herbs, vitamins and minerals, and mind-body practices.

If mainstream medicine doesn’t work for you or causes side effects you don’t like, you may be tempted to try an alternative treatment. If you do, you won’t be alone. Nearly half of people with migraines or severe headaches have used some kind of alternative or complementary medicine.

But do they work? Studies show some can help prevent or treat migraines. But others can be dangerous or interact with the medicines you take. So before you try one, talk to your doctor.

Relaxation and Stress Control

Many of the alternative treatments that work best focus on controlling stress. That makes sense, because stress is one of the most common headache triggers. In fact, the more stress you have, the more often you have migraines.

That’s due in part to the fight-or-flight syndrome. When your brain senses a threat — even if it’s just a looming deadline and not a wild animal about to attack — it sends out chemicals to help you run away. And while that response can save your life, it can also trigger a migraine.

What’s more, some emotions linked with stress, like anxiety and excitement, can raise muscle tension and worsen migraines. Stress can also interfere with your sleep, which can set off migraines.

Stress Relief Techniques to Consider

Acupuncture

With acupuncture, a practitioner puts thin needles into your skin. This is meant to promote energy flow and clear unhealthy blockages. Research suggests acupuncture may work as well as some migraine medicines. If you get at least six sessions, you may be able to cut the number of days you have migraines each month by about 40%.

Relaxation techniques

In these practices, you focus on something calming to help you relax. They include deep breathing and meditation. In guided imagery, you create peaceful mental images. Science suggests these techniques are helpful. One study found that people who meditate need less migraine medicine than those who don’t.

Yoga

This practice uses stretches, poses, breathing techniques, and meditation to relieve stress. It’s been shown to ease chronic pain, including migraine.

Moves that may help include:

  • Finger, wrist, elbow, and shoulder rotations
  • Neck flexion and extensions
  • Pada Sanchalanasana (cycling pose)
  • Hand stretch breathing
  • Savasana (corpse pose)

Acupressure and reflexology

Acupressure is similar to acupuncture, but you use your fingers to apply pressure to places on your body. People who do reflexology believe points on your hands, feet, and ears correspond to other body parts. They say pressing those spots may ease stress and improve function. While we need more research to know for sure, small studies suggest these practices may offer migraine relief.

Massage

It eases anxiety and tight muscles. Small studies suggest it lessens migraine pain. It may also lower the number of attacks you get. Along with getting professional massages, you can try some moves on your own:

Eyebrows

Place your thumbs under your eyebrows near the bridge of your nose. Press up firmly.

Hand

Use two fingers to press the fleshy area between your thumb and index finger.

Feet

Sit in a chair and roll a tennis ball under the sole of your foot. Focus on any tender areas.

Jaw

Massage the area around the hinge of your jaw.

Hydrotherapy

This migraine management method has been around for centuries. It works by narrowing your blood vessels, then opening them back up (doctors call this vasoconstriction and vasodilation). One study found that people with migraines who put their feet in warm water and added a warm cloth on their arm felt less pain.

TENS units

TENS is short for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. TENS units are small machines that you use at home. They send low-voltage electric currents into your body, which block pain messages from reaching your brain. Although experts agree more study is needed, research suggests this therapy eases chronic pain. One review found that using a TENS unit cut the number of days people had migraines and how many painkillers they needed.

Biofeedback and Neurofeedback

A therapist attaches you to electrical sensors that give info about your body, like heart rate, muscle tension, or blood flow in your brain. The idea is to teach you how to make changes, such as relaxing your muscles. Doing this may prevent or ease a headache. Research shows these techniques can lower the number of migraines you get.

Supplements and Natural Remedies

Research shows that some herbal supplements, vitamins, and minerals can help treat or prevent migraines. You might consider trying these:

Butterbur

This shrub is one of the most-researched migraine remedies. One study found that taking 75 milligrams cut the number of migraines people got by nearly half. Ask your doctor to recommend a brand that’s made from the plant’s roots. The raw shrub contains toxic compounds, so you need a product that’s been properly processed.

Caffeine

Yes, you can find it in prescription and over-the-counter migraine medications, but you can also try a bit of chocolate or a cup of tea or coffee when you feel a headache coming on. That’s because caffeine affects levels of a brain chemical called adenosine, which rises when you have a migraine. Just don’t overdo it, or your body could get used to the caffeine and stop responding.

Feverfew

Headache experts say the extract of this flowering plant can prevent or stop migraines. But don’t take it if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive. You should take 100 to 300 milligrams up to four times a day.

Vitamins, Minerals, and Antioxidants

One of these could help prevent migraines:

Magnesium

Taking a magnesium supplement may stop some body changes that lead to migraines. Research shows it’s most useful if you have migraines with auras or if you get headaches close to your period. The recommended dose is 400-500 milligrams of magnesium oxide daily. Food sources include: Bananas, spinach, tofu, chard, and almonds.

Riboflavin (B2)

Several small studies have shown that taking 400 milligrams of this vitamin daily prevents migraines. Food sources include: Organ meats, low-fat milk, asparagus, spinach, fortified cereals, and breads.

Coenzyme Q10

Small studies show that taking 150-300 milligrams of this antioxidant daily may prevent migraines. It could also shorten attacks and make them less severe. Food sources include: Pork, beef, chicken, organ meats, trout, herring mackerel, sardines, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, oranges, strawberries, peanuts, and pistachios.

Fish oil

This supplement gives you omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in cold water fish like herring, mackerel, salmon, and trout. One small study showed that taking it made migraine attacks happen less often and made them less severe. Food sources include: Salmon, spinach, broccoli, and walnuts.

Treatments to Avoid

Daith piercing

The theory is that this small fold of cartilage in your ear is an acupressure point. A piercing will apply pressure that fends off migraines. But there’s no science to back this up. Plus, there’s a risk of infection if you don’t keep the area clean.

Homeopathic remedies

In homeopathic medicine, you take diluted substances that, in higher doses, can cause the symptoms you’re having. This is meant to help your body cure itself. But there isn’t much proof that homeopathic remedies work for migraines.

Essential oils

Some people claim these scented oils, such as lavender and peppermint, relieve migraines. There’s no proof they work.

Melatonin

This hormone helps control your body’s sleep-wake cycle. Some research suggests it may help, but one study found melatonin supplements had no effect on migraine frequency.

Remedies That Need More Research

Some treatments show promise, but we need further studies to know for sure if they help. Among them are:

Ginger

A few small studies suggest this anti-inflammatory spice may ease migraine pain. Taking it might relieve other symptoms. Ginger’s been shown to ease nausea and vomiting.

Oxygen therapy

In this technique, you get extra oxygen from a face mask or tube. It’s done at home or in a medical clinic. It works well for cluster headaches and some people with migraines. Experts aren’t sure why, but early research suggests it could have to do with blood flow to the brain.

Folic acid, B6, and B12 vitamins

Together they help your body use an amino acid called homocysteine. If you don’t use it, levels rise and could lead to a migraine. Some food sources include:

Folic acid

Broccoli, leafy green veggies, liver

B6

Pork, poultry, fish bread, eggs

B12

Meat, salmon, eggs, and dairy