Headache Relief in a Root

A newcomer on the pain-relief scene, kudzu root gives hope to people suffering from a debilitating type of headache known as a “cluster” headache. This may help clean up its unpopular reputation, as the invasive kudzu vine has itself been a bit of a headache since it was introduced to American soil from Asia in the late 1800s.

Cluster headaches present particular challenges

Anyone who experiences cluster headaches can tell you that they’ll do just about anything to get rid of the pain. Often unaided by conventional medications and in need of relief, many people turn to the Internet for information and support for cluster headache pain. In recent years, Web-based sources have purported that extracts from the kudzu plant can alleviate cluster headaches; a new study in the journal Headache shows that this might actually be the case.

Cluster headaches aren’t your typical tension headache and can be even more painful than a migraine. As the name implies, cluster headaches occur in periods lasting from several months to several years, during which time attacks can occur one to three times per day, lasting from 15 minutes to three hours. The pain that accompanies these headaches is described as excruciating. Typically located in one eye, the pain frequently radiates to other areas of the head, neck, and shoulders. During a cluster headache “attack,” the affected eye will tear up and become swollen and bloodshot and the eyelid will droop, the nose will start to run, and the face becomes pale and sweaty. For reasons not completely understood, men seem to be more susceptible than women to developing cluster headaches. Routine medical treatments for cluster headaches are frequently ineffective and often fraught with undesirable side effects. In response to a growing interest in kudzu as a cluster headache treatment, a researcher from Yale University reviewed the responses of 16 people who had used the plant to help ease their symptoms, as part of a survey of alternative and complementary therapies used by cluster headache sufferers.

An ordinary root reduces an extraordinary pain

Of the people who used kudzu, 69% experienced a decrease in the intensity of the attacks, 56% suffered attacks less frequently, and 31% said that their headaches were shorter in duration while taking kudzu. People who took kudzu more frequently (two to three times per day), at a total daily dose of up to 1,500 mg were most likely to notice a benefit.

“Although few subjects were able to completely discontinue conventional medications, a substantial proportion found that kudzu extract [eased] the intensity, frequency, and duration of their cluster attacks, with minimal side effects,” said the author, adding that controlled studies are needed to confirm the results.

The kudzu root is rich in isoflavones—plant compounds with weak estrogen-like activity. It is possible that women may suffer less frequently from cluster headaches due to hormonal influences; by the same token, the hormonal effect of kudzu might explain its utility in treating cluster headaches. Whatever the reason, this tenacious vine promises to be the subject of more intensive studies to come.

(Headache 2009;49:98–105)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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