What Is It?
For centuries, healers relied on the feathery green leaves of feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) to treat headaches, stomach upset, rheumatoid arthritis, and menstrual problems. The bright yellow and white blossoms of this flower, which grows wild throughout Europe and South America, emit a powerful aroma that was once thought to purify the air and prevent disease. Feverfew has also long been used in gardens to repel bees and various insects. And as its common name suggests, it was once popular for reducing fever.
The herb was somewhat forgotten, however, until the late 1970s. That’s when migraine sufferers started talking about feverfew’s potential to ward off these often debilitating headaches. Since then, several well-designed studies have reported success in treating and preventing migraines with feverfew.
Feverfew’s therapeutic powers were once attributed almost solely to the chemical parthenolide. The herb is now thought to contain numerous compounds that affect the body in beneficial ways. Its effectiveness for a variety of ailments, including rheumatoid arthritis, is being explored.
Specifically, feverfew may help to:
Prevent and reduce the intensity of migraine headaches. Although the exact cause of migraines remains a mystery, some experts believe that these headaches may be triggered by the contraction and then sudden dilation of blood vessels in the head. This action appears to release neurochemicals in the brain that cause pain and inflammation. Exactly how feverfew helps migraines remains unclear, although it’s most likely due to the contained parthenolides and their ability, among other things, to inhibit the production of certain inflammatory compounds and prevent blood platelets from clumping together (aspirin does this too). When taken preventively, feverfew seems to lessen the intensity of a migraine as well as the occurrence of such associated symptoms as nausea and vomiting. (Once underway, however, a migraine will not be affected in any way by taking feverfew.) In a British study, migraine sufferers who had been taking feverfew regularly were split into two groups, one that continued with the herb, and a second that started on a placebo. While the feverfew group experienced no increase in headaches, the placebo group quickly developed more frequent and severe migraines. Another British study reported a 24% reduction in migraines with feverfew, along with a lessening in intensity for the migraines that did occur.
Relieve menstrual cramps. Menstrual cramps occur when the uterine lining produces too much prostaglandin, a hormone that can cause pain and inflammation. Because it can help limit the release of prostaglandin, feverfew may have a role to play in easing menstrual cramps. While more research is required, there’s probably no harm in starting to take feverfew a day before you anticipate that your menstrual cramps will begin.
–Select your supplement brand with care, as a number of so-called feverfew products have been found to contain almost none of an apparently critical ingredient, parthenolide. The label should indicate the presence of Tanacetum parthenium and be standardized to contain a minimum of 0.4% parthenolide.
For migraines: In the morning, take 250 mg of a feverfew product (preferably the freeze-dried capsules) standardized to contain at least 0.4% of parthenolide.
For menstrual cramps: Take freeze-dried capsules two or three times on the day before you anticipate that your menstrual period will begin. Continue as needed.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Feverfew, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
Most migraine sufferers take feverfew in capsule or tablet form because teas and tinctures can be bitter, and chewing the fresh leaves can irritate the mouth.
Feverfew in freeze-dried form has been the most intensively examined for its migraine-preventive actions. Anecdotal evidence indicates that extract forms are not as effective for this purpose.
Don’t expect immediate results for migraines; you’ll have to take feverfew regularly for several several weeks or more before feeling its full protective effects.
Avoid abruptly ending a daily feverfew regimen, as headaches may resume.
Like aspirin, feverfew inhibits platelet clumping, and theoretically can therefore inhibit blood clotting. However, this has never been reported as a side effect. To be on the safe side, if you’re taking any anticoagulant drugs (including aspirin), discuss using feverfew with your doctor.
Because many of feverfew’s effects are similar to aspirin and other NSAIDs, it’s probably wise to avoid using feverfew in combination with either of these.
Note: For information on interactions with specific generic drugs, see our WholeHealth Chicago Drug/Nutrient Interactions Chart.
Possible Side Effects
Side effects are uncommon, appearing mostly in long-time users if at all.
Some people report stomach upset after taking feverfew supplements or ingesting the fresh leaves.
Chewing the plant’s fresh leaves can cause mouth sores and inflammation of mucous membranes in the mouth.
Skin contact with the feverfew plant can cause a rash in some cases.
Don’t take feverfew if you’re pregnant, as the herb may cause uterine contractions. Don’t take the herb if you breast-feed.
Avoid feverfew is you develop a rash after touching the fresh herb or have any type of sensitivity to other members of the same plant family (Asteraceae), such as daisies, asters, sunflowers, and chamomile.
Migraine 250-400 mg every morning
Glenn Rothfeld, M.D., M.Ac.
This herb has proved remarkably effective for migraines and in Europe is often the treatment of choice for this ailment.
HOW IT HELPS MIGRAINE
Feverfew slowly increases the levels of the chemical serotonin in the brain, which has been shown to be a key to migraine prevention. It also acts on platelets, a type of blood cell involved in clotting. Platelets can release a chemical that helps dilate blood vessels (one theory of migraines is that blood vessels dilate inappropriately.) Feverfew also blocks the release of the dilating substance. You’ll need to take feverfew a while before you’ll feel its full effect.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
There are many brands of feverfew, and even some combination supplements in which feverfew is the key ingredient. Select your supplement brand with care, however, as a number of so-called feverfew products have been found to contain almost none of an apparently critical ingredient, parthenolide. The label should indicate the presence of Tanacetum parthenium and be standardized to contain a minimum of 0.4% parthenolide.
Some brands of freeze-dried feverfew capsules have proved to be particularly effective.
David Edelberg, MD