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If you suffer from the intense pain of cluster headaches, you don't have to reach for narcotic pain relievers. Try these seven natural options to relieve cluster headache pain without addictive medications
Cluster headaches are a type of cyclical headache that occur in groupings over a period of weeks or months. These cluster periods are characterized by sharp, stabbing pains that are generally present on one side of the head or around one eye. A cluster headache sufferer may experience one to eight severe headaches per day when a cluster cycle is in effect.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, cluster pain is often described as a "burning" pain, "like a hot poker in the eye," and is considered one of the most painful of all headaches.[i] Shorter in duration than migraine headaches, a cluster attack typically lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours.
While migraine pain is generally accompanied by the need to lie down in the dark, cluster pain makes lying down nearly impossible, with sufferers often pacing or rocking to try and distract from the pain. It is speculated that as many as 1 million people are living with cluster pain in the U.S.[ii]
Causes of Cluster Headaches
While cluster headaches may be misdiagnosed as migraine, a cluster headache is a unique type of primary headache disorder. Cluster headaches are signaled by the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for your biological clock and maintaining sleeping and waking cycles. The signal triggers a nerve pathway at the base of the brain called the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for sending sensations of heat or pain to the face.[iii]
The study of cluster headaches is still a relatively recent discipline, but it is believed there may be a genetic component to the disease, with some families passing down the tendency.[iv] Cluster headaches also tend to occur around the same time of year, causing sufferers to mistake them for allergy symptoms or work or life stress.[v]
Cluster headaches generally onset between the ages of 20 and 40 and affect men and women at about the same rates.[vi] Cluster headaches may go into periods of remission lasting for months or years, or these attacks may cease permanently for no known reason.[vii]
Natural Remedies for Cluster Headaches
When it comes to relieving headache pain, pharmaceutical options generally rely on highly addictive narcotic-based pain medications or steroidal drugs like prednisone. If you are a natural health advocate, you'll be relieved to find multiple, non-addictive options that can help take the edge off the pain and restore you to normal functioning.
Melatonin is the hormone most associated with the sleep-wake cycle. As a supplement, melatonin has gained popularity for insomnia support, helping your body to fall asleep naturally, especially when issues like jet lag or late-night shift work disrupt your normal sleep rhythm.
Melatonin as an adjunct therapy for headache disorders has received scientific validation, including a 2006 study by the Brain Research Institute in Brazil. Researchers expounded on prior research that found decreased melatonin levels in sufferers of both migraine and cluster-type headaches.
They found that melatonin has numerous mechanisms that work to relieve or prevent headaches, including an anti-inflammatory effect, toxic free-radical scavenging, reduction of pro-inflammatory cytokine upregulation and opioid analgesia potentiation, meaning it can enhance the effect of other pain medications.[viii]
Also known as vitamin B1, thiamine is one of eight essential B vitamins that helps regulate the conversion of food into energy. Naturally present in certain foods, thiamine is absorbed by the small intestine and stored primarily in the liver, but only in trace amounts, making it crucial to provide a continuous supply from your diet.[ix]
One of the risk factors of thiamine deficiency is headaches,[x] leading researchers to explore what may link these phenomena. Headache pain may cause a person to experience nausea and therefore avoid eating, causing a mild thiamine deficiency.[xi] Further, B vitamins as a group have been shown to affect clinical symptoms of migraine headaches.[xii]
To ensure you are getting adequate amounts of thiamine in your diet, eat foods such as macadamia nuts, lentils, pastured pork and grass fed beef, and vegetables like organic leafy greens, beets and potatoes.
When you think of kudzu, you probably think of the invasive vine that grows unchecked along many U.S. highways. What you may not know is that kudzu's root, flower and leaf are used to make traditional herbal remedies for ailments such as alcoholism, upset stomach, dizziness, vomiting and -- you guessed it -- headaches.
Kudzu goes by many names in many regions of the world, including Japanese arrowroot. A staple of traditional Chinese medicine, studies on kudzu supplementation have been primarily focused on the plant's unique ability to cure an alcohol hangover. Since headaches are a common hangover symptom, perhaps it was this connection that led researchers to explore self-treatment options for cluster headaches.
A 2009 analysis of kudzu extract use by cluster headache sufferers found that the extract, available over-the-counter at most herbal apothecaries and drug stores, was useful in alleviating the symptoms of cluster headaches: 69% of participants experienced decreased intensity of attacks, 56% experienced decreased headache frequency and 31% experienced decreased duration of pain.[xiii]
4. Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is a treatment that was originally pioneered to assist deep-sea divers with a way to decompress safely after rapid resurfacing, a potentially life-threatening maneuver. In a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, the air pressure is increased to two to three times that of normal, allowing your lungs to take in much more oxygen than would be possible under normal conditions.
When this extra oxygen circulates in the bloodstream, it creates a healing opportunity that helps fight infection and can stimulate the growth of new, healthy cells. When it comes to treating cluster headaches, hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) interrupts these attacks when they happen and can even help prevent their recurrence for a period of several days.[xiv]
A controlled study published in Undersea Hyperbaric Medicine found that the subgroup treated with HBO experienced pain relief compared to the control group and determined that HBO can effectively act on serotonergic pathways of pain, calming the neurons along specific brain pathways that are affected in cluster attacks.[xv]
Short for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, CAM refers to the category of therapeutic applications that fall outside the scope of standard medical care. Therapies and treatments that focus on holistic wellness, i.e., treating the whole person, are considered CAM, as opposed to Western medicine that focuses treatment on individual symptoms in isolation.
In 2008, a survey was conducted on multiple headache treatment centers in Italy. Results showed that between 8% and 28% of cluster headache sufferers who tried CAM treatments experienced relief from those therapies.[xvi] Examples of CAM therapies that may relieve headache pain include electromyographic (EMG) biofeedback, yoga, acupuncture and integrative medicine.[xvii]
Psilocybin is a compound in certain mushrooms -- often referred to as magic mushrooms -- that may have the ability to relieve cluster headaches. A study of 53 patients with cluster headaches who had used either psilocybin or LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) for relief found that 25 of 48 patients who used psilocybin reported that their cluster period ended after treatment with psilocybin.[xviii]
Further, 18 of 19 psilocybin users reported an extended remission period after dosing with the mushrooms.[xix] Research into the therapeutic properties of psilocybin has led to multiple decriminalization measures in several states and to the development of medical research centers, including one at Johns Hopkins University,[xx] that are exclusively focused on psychedelic substances and their potential medical value.
7. Hawaiian Baby Woodrose
An ornamental plant in the morning glory family, Hawaiian baby woodrose seeds are used to make medicine for pain relief.[xxi] Combined with their analgesic quality, these seeds have a hallucinogenic effect that may help stop the pain of a cluster headache attack.
A case report was published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 2020 that documented an individual who used Hawaiian baby woodrose to successfully alleviate symptoms of cluster headache.[xxii] This individual also suffered from mental health problems and claimed to have benefitted from the use of psychedelics in the past.
This is the first case report to concurrently examine the analgesic and psycho-spiritual effects of Hawaiian baby woodrose, with the results highlighting the need for further research into the use of psychedelics in the management of cluster headache and mental illness.[xxiii]
*WARNING: Always consult a medical herbalist or your health care practitioner when using both natural and pharmaceutical medicines for any diagnosed condition. This article is for informational purposes only and not intended to be used as medical advice.
[i] American Migraine Foundation, Resource Library, Cluster Headache 2, https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/cluster-headache-2/
[ii] American Migraine Foundation, Resource Library, Cluster Headache 2, https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/cluster-headache-2/
[iii] WebMD, Migraine & Headaches, Cluster Headaches, https://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/cluster-headaches
[iv] American Migraine Foundation, Resource Library, Cluster Headache 2, https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/cluster-headache-2/
[v] WebMD, Migraine & Headaches, Cluster Headaches, https://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/cluster-headaches
[vi] American Migraine Foundation, Resource Library, Cluster Headache 2, https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/cluster-headache-2/
[vii] WebMD, Migraine & Headaches, Cluster Headaches, https://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/cluster-headaches
[viii] Mario F P Peres, Marcelo R Masruha, Eliova Zukerman, Carlos Alberto Moreira-Filho, Esper A Cavalheiro. Potential therapeutic use of melatonin in migraine and other headache disorders. Expert Opin Investig Drugs. 2006 Apr;15(4):367-75. PMID: 16548786
[ix] NIH.gov, Thiamin Fact Sheet, https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Thiamin-HealthProfessional/
[x] Prakash S, Kumar Singh A, Rathore C. Chronic Migraine Responding to Intravenous Thiamine: A Report of Two Cases. Headache. 2016 Jul;56(7):1204-9. doi: 10.1111/head.12838. Epub 2016 May 20. PMID: 27197607
[xi] Prakash S, Kumar Singh A, Rathore C. Chronic Migraine Responding to Intravenous Thiamine: A Report of Two Cases. Headache. 2016 Jul;56(7):1204-9. doi: 10.1111/head.12838. Epub 2016 May 20. PMID: 27197607
[xvi] Paolo Rossi, Paola Torelli, Cherubino Di Lorenzo, Grazia Sances, Gian Camillo Manzoni, Cristina Tassorelli, Giuseppe Nappi. Use of complementary and alternative medicine by patients with cluster headache: results of a multi-centre headache clinic survey. Complement Ther Med. 2008 Aug;16(4):220-7. Epub 2007 Jul 2. PMID: 18638713
[xvii] WebMD, Migraines & Headaches, Alternative and Complementary Treatments for Headaches and Migraines, https://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/nontraditional-headache-treatments
[xx] Johns Hopkins Medicine, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Psychedelics Research and Psilocybin Therapy, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/psychiatry/research/psychedelics-research.html
[xxi] WebMD, Vitamins & Supplements, Hawaiian Baby Woodrose, https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-325/hawaiian-baby-woodrose
[xxii] Shevaugn Johnson, Quentin C Black. Can Psychedelics Alleviate Symptoms of Cluster Headache and Accompanying Mental Health Problems? A Case Report Involving Hawaiian Baby Woodrose. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2020 May 7:1-5. Epub 2020 May 7. PMID: 32375602