Even in the times of the ancient Greek and Roman empires, healers turned to feverfew for treating headache, fever, dizziness, and depression. A beautiful garden plant noted for its feathery foliage, feverfew is a member of the same plant family as chrysanthemums.
There's a good agreement in the limited research literature that feverfew can prevent migraine headaches. What the herb cannot do very well is to treat them.
Most of the research on feverfew comes from Europe and Canada, where government agencies ensure that over-the-counter herbal supplements labeled as feverfew contain at least 0.1 per cent (in Europe) or 0.2 per cent (in Canada) of the active ingredient, parthenolides.
Feverfew does not really "kick in" for migraine prevention until after you have taken it for at least two months. It seems to be most effective when combined with white willow bark, which contains some natural plant compounds that are very similar to aspirin.
Scientists at the Naturveda - Vitro-Bio Research Institute in Issoire, France, found in a clinical trial involving 12 volunteers that taking a combination of feverfew and white willow bark twice a day:
- Reduced the frequency of attacks 57.2 per cent after six weeks' use,
- Reduced the frequency of attacks 61.7 per cent after twelve weeks' use,
- Reduced the severity of attacks 38.7 per cent after six weeks' use,
- Reduced the severity of attacks 62.6 per cent after twelve weeks' use,
- Reduced the duration of attacks 67.2 per cent after six weeks' use, and
- Reduced the duration of attacks 76.2 per cent after twelve weeks' use.
What this trial showed is that test subjects using a combination of the two herbs had migraines at little over half as frequently after taking the supplement for three months. But even more importantly, the severity (reported pain) of the attacks and the duration (number of minutes the migraine lasted) were reduced even more.
The best results, from an herbalist's perspective, come from taking both standardized feverfew and willow bark extracts. Side effects are rare, but they are not non-existent:
- The safety of the herbs has not been conclusively proven for pregnant women and nursing mothers.
- In rare cases, feverfew can cause allergic reactions (especially if you are allergic to ragweed) or contact reactions (canker sores).
- Also in rare cases, feverfew is linked to diarrhea or flatulence.
- There are theoretical reasons to believe feverfew could make blood thinners more effective, so people who take any kind of prescription drug for thinning the blood should avoid feverfew.
- Finally, there can be a rebound effect when you stop feverfew, a temporary increase in the frequency and severity of migraines. If you stop taking feverfew, take smaller and smaller doses less and less frequently over at least a week.
Feverfew is also made for in formulas specifically for headache relief, not prevention. Usually combined with ginger, these products are effective only if they are used at the very first sign a migraine is about to occur.
Shrivastava R, Pechadre JC, John GW. Tanacetum parthenium and Salix alba (Mig-RL) combination in migraine prophylaxis: a prospective, open-label study. Clin Drug Investig. 2006;26(5):287-96.