It has a long history of use in herbal medicine for bringing down a fever, hence its name, but is now more commonly used to prevent migraine headaches. In the UK, the supplement Feverfew Migraine Relief is classed as a traditional herbal medicine for treating migraine and licensed under the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) scheme.
Dr Sarah Brewer says: ‘Feverfew contains a compound called parthenolide, which may help to ease muscle spasms, reduce inflammation, and prevent changes in the dilation of blood vessels in the brain – associated with migraine headaches. The supplement is best taken every day for three months to assess the full benefits.’
What does feverfew do?
It is mainly the leaves and flowers of feverfew that contain the active ingredient parthenolide. This helps relieve spasms in smooth muscle tissue, and is believed to inhibit the release of a brain neurotransmitter called serotonin. This prevents the sudden widening of blood vessels, which happens in the development of migraine, and therefore may help reduce the severity and frequency of attacks.
Migraine is an extremely common health condition, affecting around one in five women and one in 15 men. As well as a throbbing pain on one side of the head, many people also experience nausea, vomiting and an increased sensitivity to light and noise.
Anecdotally, migraine sufferers have reported their attacks have gradually become less frequent, and in some cases stopped altogether after taking feverfew. One scientific review analysed six studies involving 561 participants, the newest one showed feverfew reduced migraine frequency by just over half a migraine (0.6) attack per month compared to a placebo.
In another trial of 170 people who suffered migraines, those taking feverfew extract for 16 weeks reduced the average number of attacks per month by 1.9, compared with 1.3 in those on placebo. However, researchers say more large-scale studies are needed before firm conclusions about the benefits can be drawn.
Getting feverfew from your diet
You can drink feverfew as a tea or a tincture, available from health food stores, but it has a bitter taste. Alternatively, take in supplement form. You can also grow your own feverfew and chop up the leaves to use in tea or tinctures.
Feverfew is considered safe to use for most people, although side effects of gastric and skin irritation have been reported. If the fresh leaves are chewed, mouth sores may develop.
It should not be taken if you are pregnant as it may cause contractions of the uterus and it is not recommended whilst breastfeeding. Feverfew may also inhibit blood clotting, so consult your GP before taking it if you are being prescribed blood-thinning medicines, such as warfarin.
Don’t stop taking feverfew suddenly; it’s best to taper the dose, phasing it out slowly. If you stop it too quickly it’s possible you’ll develop feverfew rebound syndrome where you suddenly experience a recurrence of migraines, along with nausea, anxiety and insomnia.
There is no UK or EU recommended daily allowance or upper safe limit; a typical supplement dose is 100mg a day.