As research on psychedelics expands, so does the list of conditions they might treat. One perhaps surprising addition to that list is cluster headache disorder, which affects up to 1 million people in the United States alone.1 Sufferers have been discussing psychedelic treatments amongst themselves for years, and clinical research is finally catching up with them.
This is potentially life-changing news for cluster headache patients, many of whom have not yet found a treatment that alleviates their pain. And pain is an understatement. Cluster headaches have earned themselves the grim nickname of “suicide headaches,” rating a solid 10 out of 10 on the pain scale.1 And, as the name suggests, the headaches come in groups. Patients can have several headache attacks per day for weeks or months, preventing them from living normal lives and even causing PTSD.2 For those who haven’t found an effective treatment, any possibility for relief may be worth trying.
How Could Psychedelics Help Cluster Headaches?
It was indeed the patients themselves who sparked scientific interest in treating cluster headaches with psychedelics. In the early 2000s, one patient contacted Dr. John Halpern, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. He had an interesting story to tell. After being plagued with cluster headaches for 18 years, his recreational use of LSD and psilocybin had the unexpected side effect of curing his headaches.3 Dr. Halpern and his team were intrigued and suspected this patient might not be an isolated case. Through online forums and support groups, they located 53 other people who had attempted to treat cluster headaches with psychedelics. For the majority of them, it alleviated their symptoms.
Other researchers have expanded on this work in both medical case reports and survey studies. According to an extensive analysis of patient discussion forums, psilocybin and LSD appear to be the most widely praised psychedelic treatments.2 People have also had success with other compounds, including the mostly-legal Hawaiian Baby Woodrose plant.4 However, most patients who use psychedelics to relieve their cluster headaches are desperate enough to accept the risk of possessing a controlled substance.2 Doctors in Spain reported on one such patient who had turned to psilocybin after nothing else worked.5 Intriguingly, the patient did not need a large dose to achieve freedom from his headaches: one monthly microdose was enough to keep him symptom-free for at least six months.
Dr. Halpern’s original study also supports the idea that large doses may not be necessary. For many of his 53 patients, sub-hallucinogenic doses were effective in alleviating symptoms. Even more remarkably, patients reported that psychedelics could terminate an ongoing cluster attack within 20 minutes – a property most pharmacological treatments lack.6 And as is seen with psychedelics in other clinical settings, a little bit goes a long way. Prescription medicines designed to prevent cluster headaches generally need to be taken every day, whereas a single dose of LSD or psilocybin could be effective for weeks.3
How can this be? One theory dominates the scientific literature, although it hasn’t been scientifically proven. Like the current standard treatments for cluster headaches – drugs called triptans – psilocybin and LSD interact with serotonin receptors in the brain. Although psychedelics have a slightly different mechanism of action than triptans do, they both constrict the blood vessels through their action at serotonin receptors.7 Constricting blood vessels might end the headache because enlarged blood vessels cause pressure to build up in the brain. This pressure, in turn, causes inflammation and pain. This may be the source of cluster headaches, although no one knows why the blood vessels become enlarged in the first place.
Triptan treatments don’t work for everyone, and as Dr. Halpern notes in his study, neither do psychedelics. But some people who don’t respond to standard treatments achieve freedom from headaches with psilocybin and LSD, and they may not need to be taken frequently to be effective. Even though it was only a survey study, Dr. Halpern and his co-authors found the evidence in their hands difficult to dismiss. Over a decade later, other scientists are thinking the same thing.
Clinical Trials Are Underway
As of May 2020, three clinical trials of psychedelics for treating cluster headache are running worldwide. The Heffter Research Institute is currently sponsoring a psilocybin trial at Yale, using low and high doses.8 A similar study is running at one of the largest hospitals in Denmark.9 And the University of Basel in Switzerland, one of the most prolific sources of research on LSD these days, is testing hallucinogenic doses of LSD in their Phase 2 trial.10
Drug approval processes are painfully slow, but the good news is that the clinical trial machinery is now in motion. If psychedelics really can help people whose lives are controlled by cluster headaches, it’s only a matter of time before these treatments become safely available to those who need them.
I can tell you from experience that pshlicybin mushrooms halt the attacks of cluster headaches for me. I am considered episodic, which means that my attacks come in waves with remissions in between. Sometimes the attacks last for months to a year with headaches multiple times a day. It disables me to a point where I dread leaving my home and have contemplated suicide during these attack waves. But after research, I tried mushrooms. I was in the middle of a cycle and took a decent dose. I got one excruciating headache in the middle of the trip and the… Read more »
Jon, I read your comments with great interest.I am 54 yrs and i have suffered with episodic clusters since my early twenties. I started my latest attacks 4 weeks ago and as is typical i am having three attackers per 24 hrs. I am treating myself with sumatriptan 6 mg injections for two of the attacks as i am only able to use 12mg in any 24hr period, i take a nasal spray of Zomitriptan 5mg for the third attack, this is nowhere near as effective as the injections. I am intrigued to learn more about the mushrooms but fear… Read more »
Email me and I’ll talk to you about what they have personally done for me. Ive never found anything that even remotely helps these headaches but a single small dose of psychedelics is enough to keep them away for an entire year for me
No side effects, if you don’t want to live in hell take these shrooms! U must be crazy
I want to order some spores for my friend so he can grow his own and micro-dose. Do you know the strain that worked for you?
I’m happy to hear you found relief. Cluster headaches are debilitating.
Hi Jon, my dad suffers from severe cluster headaches. I would love to be able to contact you as we are seeking alternative treatments and your story is promising.
What kind of dosages we talking about here? Love that u have added chat room facility!??
As a long term chronic suffer 15 yr + I have been through every treatment you can think off and guess what this is the only one that not only works but has no side effects. Its not possible to put into words the pain CH causes us and psychedlics have given my life back for last yr. We lose too many suffers taking their own lives and desperate for the medical comunity to give us suffers a chance of a normal life without the threat of criminal record for taking something natural (mushrooms) that all it does is give… Read more »
I have been dealing with cyclic clusters for over 10 years and I found this out by accident after watching a documentary. I realized that the only years that I dont have clusters are years that I had taken LSD or psilocybin previous to the Autumn when they always come.
My 3 year old grandson has been diagnosed with cluster headaches. He is in his first cluster that started about the time he turned three in August 2020 and has been in cycle since. We are devistated and are considering alternatives. Does anyone know of someone else with a toddler and treatment with alternatives?
I’m so sorry to hear that! Poor little guy. I hope his doctors can find some way to give him relief. Of course psychedelic treatments for cluster headaches are still in clinical trials and should never be given to children, which I’m sure goes without saying. Some kids respond well to approved treatments so I sincerely hope your grandson becomes one of them.
I have been in a cluster for a little over a month now. My biggest trigger seems to be sudden changes in barometric pressure. I’ve been doing oxygen therapy for them and they are cut from an hour to literally minutes. If anyone has not tried this yet please talk with your doctor about it. It has saved my life. And it’s not a drug! A real game changer for me
For all of you unfamiliar with psychedelics and possibly concerned about this (what about the side effects, what about the harm, will I damage myself?). It can be safely assumed that the greatest threat when it comes to these substances is … a meeting with law enforcement. Because when it comes to the impact on health, it has been thoroughly researched and published by “The Lancet”, the Economist published the results at home. Considering the medical facts, it’s strange that people are afraid of these substances and are not afraid to drink highly toxic beer or wine 🙂 Results here:… Read more »