Ah, summer. Sunshine, fresh air, a romp at the beach. Ugh, summer. Sunburns, heatstroke, and those headaches that feel like someone’s using a blacksmithing anvil and hammer right inside your skull.
When you have a headache, fever, or aches and pains, the easiest and quickest fix is to reach for that bottle of painkillers. One of the most popular headache relievers in America, and many other places in the world, is acetaminophen. The main ingredient in Tylenol, acetaminophen is found in more than 600 over-the-counter and prescription medications. Doctors often recommend treating a fever, headache, or other pain by alternating between ibuprofen and Tylenol. And you’ll likely be given Tylenol if you go to the hospital with a fever.
But Is Tylenol Actually Safe?
Dr. Cammy Benton, an integrative family physician based in Huntersville, North Carolina, says Tylenol isn’t safe for children and should only be used sparingly by adults.
“Honestly, doctors need to stop recommending it,” Benton says. “Especially for women who are trying to conceive, pregnant moms, infants, and small children. I tell my patients to avoid acetaminophen as much as they can.”
The main problem with acetaminophen, Benton explains, is that it can be damaging to the liver, especially if you take too much. Given how many products contain acetaminophen—including cough syrups, flu remedies, and even allergy medicines and some antacids—it’s easy to overdose. Indeed, even just a double dose of Tylenol can cause acute liver injury.
Acetaminophen depletes the body of glutathione, a very important antioxidant that’s manufactured in the liver. Glutathione is like a natural mop. As Dr. Joseph Pizzorno explains, it protects the body by binding with harmful substances in the body—from heavy metals to infectious agents—to get them out of your system. So it makes sense that the last thing you want to take when you’re sick or in pain—even if it is the first thing most conventional doctors recommend—is Tylenol.
William Parker, an immunologist at Duke University who has been researching and writing about acetaminophen for more than a decade, argues that early exposure to acetaminophen may also be a causative factor in autism. Acetaminophen has also been linked to asthma in both adults and children.
Health issues aside, there’s another reason not to take acetaminophen. This drug is created from coal tar. To derive acetaminophen, the coal has to be heated via a process called pyrolysis. Burning coal has a variety of negative environmental effects. So it’s a pain reliever that environmentalists will also want to avoid.
Natural Alternatives to Tylenol
So if your head is aching and you should skip the Tylenol, what should you do? The most important step, Benton and other integrative doctors say, is to try to drill down to identify the root cause.
Treating the root cause, instead of just masking the pain, she says, is always the healthiest approach.
Summer headaches are often brought on by dehydration. Rehydrating with filtered water, organic coconut water, or cold-pressed vegetable juice is a good first step. As lack of sleep and too much physical exertion can also be root causes of headaches, resting in a cool, darkened room also will help.
Turmeric Tames Inflammation
If you do need a painkiller, Benton recommends starting with turmeric. A root used in Indian cooking, turmeric contains vitamin C, beta-carotene (which is what gives it that lovely yellow-orange color), fiber, and zinc, among other nutrients. But turmeric’s most touted health-giving ingredient is curcumin, which has been shown to have both anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects.
You can buy the whole root at a natural food store in the produce aisle (when it’s in season), find the powder form in the spice section, or buy it in capsules or tablets with other vitamins and supplements.
If you’ve never taken turmeric before, start with between a quarter and a half teaspoon in a large glass of water for children and a teaspoon for adults. But keep in mind that some people need a tablespoon or two to feel its pain-relieving effects.
Magnesium, a Magnificent Mineral
If you’re getting recurrent headaches or migraines, a magnesium deficiency may be to blame, according to recent peer-reviewed research published in the journal Nutrients.
Foods that are rich in magnesium include almonds, black beans, edamame, pumpkin seeds, spinach, and dark chocolate. But even if you eat a healthy diet, your body may be deficient in magnesium.
Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxer and can also help alleviate stress, anxiety, and constipation. It’s a good supplement to take before bed. You can try taking magnesium citrate or magnesium taurate to treat that headache. These are available in the supplement section of any grocery store.
Magnesium in capsule, and not tablet, form is easier for the body to absorb, says Geoff Houghton, a naturopathic doctor based in Ashland, Oregon. Houghton recommends starting with the suggested dosing on the bottle and increasing as needed. As with vitamin C, magnesium is water-soluble.
Another excellent way to absorb magnesium is by putting Epsom salts in your bath, which will also help alleviate sore muscles and other aches and pains. Epsom salts contain magnesium sulfate. Putting two cups in your bath water and soaking for half an hour can work wonders for a headache.
Essential Oils to Ease Headaches
Essential oils, which are concentrated plant extracts, have a variety of medicinal properties. If your head is aching, peppermint oil and lavender oil can both be helpful. Put a few drops of either oil on a wet washcloth on your forehead (just be careful not to get any in your eyes).
Peppermint can be so helpful for headaches that some people have found that using peppermint shampoo reduces the frequency and severity of migraine headaches, according to The Telegraph.
Try Iced Tea
White willow bark, which comes from the Salix willow tree, has been used in human cultures as a natural pain reliever for centuries. Willow bark contains salicin, a compound that is similar to aspirin. Your body converts salicin into salicylic acid, which can help alleviate fever, inflammation, and body pain.
You can buy white willow bark extract as a supplement in a tincture, capsule, or topical ointment. It’s also available as a ready-made herbal tea, or loose in the bulk aisle of a natural food store.
Known as liu shu pi in Chinese medicine, this slightly bitter herb is surprisingly palatable as an iced tea. But if you don’t like the flavor, try masking it with ginger, honey, and a squeeze of lemon.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a science journalist based in Oregon. She’s appeared live on prime-time TV in France and worked on a child survival campaign in Niger, West Africa. A Fulbright grantee and sought-after speaker, she authored “Your Baby, Your Way,” and co-authored “The Vaccine-Friendly Plan.” Learn more at JenniferMargulis.net