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Prevents migraine headaches, relieves arthritis, eases menstrual cramps

Despite its name, feverfew won't get rid of a fever. In fact, if today's scientists could rename this plant, they might want to dub it migraine-few.

In the 1980s, several studies done in the United Kingdom showed that people who regularly suffer from migraine headaches often find relief with feverfew. In the studies, migraine sufferers who chewed fresh feverfew leaves or took capsules of dried, ground leaves experienced fewer and less severe headaches.

The key to this effect, researchers believe, is parthenolide, a compound in feverfew that helps control the expansion and contraction of blood vessels in the brain. The unpleasant symptoms of migraine — nausea, throbbing head pain and sensitivity to light — apparently occur when blood vessels in the brain overreact, contracting and expanding abnormally.

This doesn't mean, though, that you can reach for feverfew to relieve a migraine.

"Feverfew has no beneficial effect on migraine attacks once they're in gear," says Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of The Honest Herbal. "It works as a preventive, and that means taking it regularly over a long period."

Researchers suspect that feverfew may also help combat menstrual cramps and arthritic inflammation, although these uses are not as well substantiated.

Putting the herb to work

Prescription medications are available for migraines, but they don't work for everybody. According to Daniel B. Mowrey, Ph.D., director of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah, and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine, "The people feverfew works best for are usually those who don't respond to any other form of medication."

To duplicate the doses used in the migraine research, says Dr. Mowrey, "most people must eat a leaf or two or take a capsule or two each day." That's assuming you're getting perfectly potent feverfew, and that could prove difficult.

"The problem with feverfew in the United States," says Dr. Tyler, "is that you're very unlikely to get a quality product." Several investigators, he points out, have tested commercial feverfew preparations, such as tablets or extracts, and found that they contain little or no active ingredient.

For this reason, Dr. Tyler suggests taking more than the recommended dosage of any store-bought feverfew preparation to increase the odds of getting an adequate dose of the active ingredient, parthenolide. He recommends taking up to six 300- to 400-milligram tablets of the herb daily. Taking this much feverfew in tablet form is perfectly safe, he says.

You can also grow your own supply of fresh feverfew, says Dr. Mowrey. In fact, he suspects that whole feverfew leaves may work better than taking the active ingredient in concentrated form. "The research suggests strongly that the whole leaf has to be used," he says. "In some studies, people who just chewed on the leaf had better results than those who used pills filled with ground, dried plant material or an extract."

There is one potential drawback to eating feverfew leaves: They may cause irritation or ulcers of the lips, tongue and lining of the mouth. Otherwise, feverfew is generally considered safe. (If chewing feverfew leaves irritates your mouth, discontinue use immediately.)

It's also a good idea to steer clear of feverfew altogether if you are allergic to chamomile, chrysanthemum and other members of the daisy family. And since feverfew may also affect the clotting components of blood, people with a clotting disorder or those who take anti-clotting drugs probably shouldn't take it. And, just to be on the safe side, pregnant women should also avoid it.

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