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A herbal remedy for migraine.

This humble member of the daisy family, used by early herbalists and medical practitioners, has recently been rediscovered as an effective treatment for migraine. Tanacetum parthenium, known commonly as feverfew (or featherfoil – because of the feather-like shape of its leaves, is a summer-flowering member of the daisy family.

In 1772, J. Hill, a herbalist, noted the qualities of feverfew as a cure for headaches: 'In the worst headache there is no more efficacious remedy'.  Its place of origin has been traced to the Balkan peninsula, but how, or when, its introduction to western Europe occurred remains a mystery.  Mention of its use as a herbal remedy was made, however, as early as 1653 by Nicholas Culpeper in his book, Complete Herbal: 'The powder of the herb taken in wine with some Oxymel purges both choler and phlegm, and is available for those that are short winded and are troubled with melancholy and weariness or sadness of spirits'.

Although it is a specific for (possesses distinct properties for the relief of) migraine, feverfew also has other functions: as a diuretic, to increase the flow of urine; as a febrifuge, to reduce fevers; and as an anti-spasmodic in a similar way to camomile, to which feverfew is closely related.  A herbalist would not, however, prescribe feverfew for the treatment of these individuals disorders (other herbs being more suitable), but as a general remedy for migraine.

The Plant

Feverfew is easily grown on all soils, although it prefers a well-drained, sunny position.  It can be obtained as seed, and develops into a strong-smelling acrid bush up to 45 cm (18 in) tall, and bears white-petalled daisy-like flowers with yellow centres throughout the summer.  There are two varieties of the herb: an ornamental, golden-leaved type, which is of doubtful medicinal value, and the medicinal plant, with dark-green leaves.  It is a perennial – dying back in the autumn, but reappearing in spring.

Taking Feverfew

The traditional method of taking feverfew is to eat the fresh leaves from the plant, the usual dosage being up to two large or four small leaves daily.  For best results, feverfew should be taken regularly for a period of several months.  To this end, you will need to find ways of ensuring supplies of the fresh herbs throughout the winter months.  One preservation technique is to make a syrup from the leaves; this should be done, however, without boiling the herb as heat will destroy its active constituents.  The syrup can be made, therefore, by boiling the sugar and water first, allowing this mixture to cool, and then adding the fresh herb.  Alternatively, the fresh leaves can be chopped like mint and mixed with honey; this acts as a preservative and improves the taste by countering the bitterness of the herb, which some people may find quite unpalatable.  The leaves may also be frozen in ice.


An important point to remember in the use of feverfew is that the plant occasionally causes a contact skin reaction in those handling the downy leaves, and if the fresh leaves are eaten some people develop blisters in the mouth.  For this reason, and because of the bitter pungent taste, it is usually eaten sandwiched between pieces of bread.  The herbalists of old also used feverfew 'to promote suppressed menses' to restore the regularity of menstruation): for this reason it would be unwise to take feverfew during pregnancy.

Many people grow their own feverfew and take it without experiencing any such side-effects, but if you are worried, try a commercially-made preparation of feverfew.


Herbalists usually prepare feverfew in the form of a tincture – a liquid extract of the leaves, prepared by cold maceration (softening by soaking) in a mixture of water and alcohol.  This is combined with extracts from other medicinal plants which have tonic effects on the nervous system, or which treat associated symptoms, thus giving an individual prescription tailored to the needs of each patient.  Dried, powdered leaves can be pressed into tablets, and those are available at most health-food shops; the powder may also be found packed into gelatin tablets.


The active constituents of feverfew include cosmosiine, borneol, partenolide, volatile oil, and sesquiterpine lactones.

The Lancet (a medical magazine for doctors) describes the action of feverfew as blocking the formation of prostaglandins, substances which occur naturally in the body and are connected with pain initiation.  One of the functions of prostaglandins is to assist in the contraction of involuntary muscles in the body, including those of the arteries and blood vessels in the brain; it is the constriction of these vessels which contributes to the pain experienced in headaches and migraines.  By inhibiting the production of prostaglandins the muscles relax, the blood vessels dilate and the pain is eased.  Feverfew may also be effective in other cases which respond to aspirin-type drugs (which also inhibit prostaglandin synthesis).


Recent reports from herbalists suggest that the effect of feverfew on migraine symptoms in particular has been quite remarkable.  Some people experience an almost immediate improvement in their migraine pattern, whilst others show a steady reduction in the frequency and severity of attacks.

A series of questionnaires and clinical trials carried out in studies on feverfew by Dr. P. J. Hylands, and revealed at the 1985 Symposium on Herbal Medicines held by the London College of Phytotherapy (the treatment of diseases using plants), testifies to these results.  Dr. Hylands discovered that 37 percent of migraine sufferers who were experiencing an average of one or two attacks per month found that with feverfew their headaches disappeared altogether; 75 per cent found that their attacks became less frequent and less painful