If you or someone you know is one of the unfortunate 0.1% of the population who suffers from cluster headaches, take heart: an herb commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and in Asian cooking may help manage the frequency of attacks and severity of pain.
A 2009 study completed by Yale University Doctor R. Andrew Sewell and his team shows that the herb Kudzu may be effective for treating cluster headaches. In the study, 69% experienced decreased intensity of attacks, 56% decreased frequency, and 31% decreased duration, with minimal side effects. See full article.
Kudzu: The ‘Vine That Ate the South’
Readers in the southern United States may do a double take on that one. “Kudzu? The ‘vine that ate the South’?” they may ask. Yes, that dreaded vine which can advance at a rate of about 10 feet a day, covering all in its path, has a root (a giant one, I might add) that could be a godsend for sufferers of cluster headaches, whose pain is said to surpass all other human pain.
Kudzu, also known as Pueraria Montana, is native to Asia. It was introduced in the Southeastern United States, where it encountered no natural ecological limiting growth factors. Kudzu took off, engulfing huge swaths of that part of the country, climbing telephone poles and overrunning deserted homesteads. It’s nearly impossible to eradicate.
The Suicide Headache
So named because they occur in clusters either classified as episodic or chronic, cluster headaches are also known as “suicide headaches” because of the excruciating severity of their pain.
Episodic cluster headaches will have a remission period of a month or longer. Chronic cluster headaches occur continuously without any remission period between cycles.
The condition can change from chronic to episodic or vice versa with remission periods lasting decades being known to occur.
Increasing Cerebral Flow to the Brain
In his report in the January 2009 edition of Headache Journal, Dr. Sewell describes how the rhizome of Kudzu (Pueraria lobata, also known in Chinese as ge gen) is detailed in classical Chinese medical texts as indicated for many conditions, including symptoms of cold, flu and fever with stiff neck, as well as alcoholism, diarrhea, hypertension and angina pectoris.
Sewell’s research suggests that Kudzu also has among its effects the ability to increase cerebral flow to the brain, thus relieving headaches — including the dreaded cluster headache.
It’s worth noting that Sewell and colleagues conducted prior research with cluster headache patients in 2006 using psilocybin and LSD, and in 2008 using Lysergic Acid Amide (LSA), a naturally occurring analogue of LSD found in the seeds of the plants morning glory, Hawaiian baby woodrose and ololiuqui (Rivea corymbosa). Importantly, results were comparable to the the study with Kudzu:
From the psilocybin and LSD study, 50 case reports of patients showed positive results in breaking cluster headache cycles and delaying the recurrence of cluster headaches:
- 22 of 26 psilocybin users reported that psilocybin aborted attacks;
- 25 of 48 psilocybin users and 7 of 8 LSD users reported cluster period termination;
- 18 of 19 psilocybin users and 4 of 5 LSD users reported remission period extension
Data from LSA study showed:
- 38% reported effective for acute symptoms;
- 43% reported termination of cluster period;
- 29% reported partial effect
Treatment of Cluster Headaches – East and West
Western Treatment and Recommendations
The UK-based Health Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) cautions against the use of pharmaceuticals or NSAIDS for any kind of headache, due to the prevalence of “medication overuse headache,” a cruel side effect of headache medication.
For cluster headaches specifically, NICE recommends the following for health care providers to their patients:
As outlined in the NICE guidelines, Western treatment options include breathable oxygen, verapamil (blood pressure medication), triptans, Imitrex injections, anti-seizure medications, and surgery – all of which may produce side effects that are worse than the cluster headaches themselves.
Most recently, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic are developing a neuro-modulating electrode implant to control vasoconstriction and vasodilation, with promising results.
Eastern Treatment and Recommendations
While Western medicine classifies cluster headaches as a neurological disorder (similar to migraines), Chinese medicine looks at the “stabbing” nature of the pain, among other important patterns, to arrive at a diagnosis and treatment.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) distinguishes approximately eight different types of headaches.
Symptoms of fixed, stabbing pain – whether it’s in the head or lower abdomen as those with physical PMS symptoms are all too familiar with – unquestionably corresponds to blood stagnation. The treatment method in Chinese medicine is to unblock qi and and move blood. Thus we see symmetry in ancient medicine and modern research: Drs. Papay and Tepper’s implant is designed to control vasoconstriction and vasodilation, or promote a smooth flow within the blood vessels. Sewell’s research found Kudzu increases cerebral flow to the brain. Acupuncture works to stimulate the body’s systems to achieve the same results.
In Chinese medicine, individual patients may exhibit more than a single syndrome and treatment is adjusted accordingly. A multi-faceted approach might include a course of acupuncture treatments, traditional Chinese herbal formulas, and diet and lifestyle modifications. A headache journal can be invaluable: one, for increasing the patient’s awareness of the frequency and severity of headaches, and two, for monitoring treatment efficacy.
OTC Drugs for Headaches: An Eastern Perspective
Over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin or acetaminophen are classified as effective for mild pain and inflammation and may have a very limited use for severe migraines or cluster headaches. However the therapeutic principle is consistent with TCM theory, which states “no blockage, no pain” — in other words, aspirin’s blood-thinning properties relieve pain by releasing stagnant blood which blocks free flow of qi (“chee”), or energy.
Aspirin, the first “wonder drug” is pure acetylsalicylic acid and was originally derived from the common herb for rheumatic pains and fever, Meadowsweet (Asperea ulmaria – thus the name “aspirin”). Acetylsalicylic acid is found in several plants with similar properties, including willow, rosemary, white poplar and wintergreen.
The significant difference between herbs containing acetylsalicylic acid and the drug aspirin is that the drug is synthesized to be the pure chemical while the herbs contain many other cofactors that may play a broader and more vital role in treatment with less chance of adverse reactions.
I’ve seen it happen many times before. An herb is found in its whole form to be effective for a specific disease but in its synthesized single chemical form it is not so effective. Because drug companies spend millions to bring a drug to market, there is no incentive to invest in an herb that can be freely found as a common noxious weed.
Kudzu is commonly available in powdered form as a sauce thickening condiment in Japanese cooking. And with the added effect of reducing alcohol intake, a known trigger of cluster headache attacks, the herb is worth considering.
We will have to see whether Kudzu, reported to be effective by scores of patients in Dr. Sewell’s study, finds its way through the costly pharmaceutical red tape market as well it can find its way over and through anything in its path on the Southeastern U.S. landscape.
For the sake of cluster headache sufferers all over the world, I hope it does.
Clusterbusters: Non-profit research and educational organization dedicated to researching treatments that show promise for reliable, effective and long term relief from cluster and related headaches.
Cleveland Clinic: Comprehensive definition, management, neuro-modulating electrode implant video
Clinical profile of cluster headaches in China: A clinic-based study
The Neuropharmacology of Cluster Headache and other Trigeminal Autonomic Cephalalgias: A comprehensive study which mentions Kudzu
Feature image of ge gen (Kudzu) courtesy The Little Flower, Portland, OR