The idea of “dropping acid” or ingesting hallucinogens and psychedelics to treat headaches is not exactly new, but it has been undergoing a resurgence over the last few years. This is a trend related to both medical research as well as to shifts in societal attitudes, and we can credit the ongoing efforts to legislate the medicinal use of marijuana in various jurisdictions across the United States for this renewed interest in psychedelics as therapeutic aids.
In terms of popular culture, psychedelics saw their heyday in the United States during the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, but more than a million American television viewers tuned in to watch the fourth season premiere episode of Weeds, a comedic drama that played on the Showtime cable network. The show Weeds dealt with the trials and tribulations of a suburban middle-class mom who turns to drug dealing after the unexpected death of her husband. It so happens that this woman succumbed to a migraine-like condition as a result of stress caused by her dangerous occupation, and she turned to the powerful ayahuasca plant to alleviate her headaches.
From cable television to the research halls of Harvard Medical School, hallucinogens are being considered as a therapeutic option to treat one of the most debilitating cephalalgia conditions known to physicians: chronic cluster headaches. Only a few migraine patients are unfortunate enough to suffer cluster headaches; whereas the vast majority of migraine patients are women, cluster headaches mostly affect men. Harvard researchers have worked with physicians in Germany to conduct clinical trials of a mildly hallucinogenic form of lysergic acid diethylamide, known as LSD, to treat the worst cases of cluster headaches, and the results have been very positive.
Clinical Uses of PsychedelicsThe use of LSD to treat cluster headaches is not the only case of hallucinogenic substances being integrated into therapeutic treatments. To this effect, we know of:
- MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy or molly, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder
- Psilocybin mushrooms informally used to treat cluster headaches
- LSD used in conjunction with psychotherapy for behavioral disorders
Potential Therapeutic Value of Psychedelics for Migraines
The scientist who discovered LSD was originally looking for a chemical substance that would provide effective treatment of headaches. Like many people around the world, Albert Hoffman got the occasional headache. At the time he discovered LSD, research into the migraine condition had mostly determined this to be a vascular condition. Hoffman ingested a small amount of the LSD he discovered and experienced a pleasant hallucinogenic experience followed by a good night's sleep. He reported feeling great the next morning.
Medical researchers who have studied the therapeutic use of psychedelics note that small amounts of certain mind-altering substances can help patients from a behavioral point of view. Insofar as the migraine condition being connected to how a patient's psyche reacts to stress, it stands to reason that hallucinogens may help to some degree; however, there is a major caveat in this regard.
Mind-altering substances tend to have many side effects, and stress is high on the list. Hallucinogenic plants such as ayahuasca, which is used for shamanistic rituals among Amazonian tribes, tend to created high levels of excitability and stress when ingested. This reaction would create a problem for migraine patients for whom stress is known to trigger headache episodes. It is very likely that the initial stress and agitation caused by psychedelics could trigger migraine episodes in many patients, thereby nullifying potential therapeutic benefits.
*Image courtesy of Mushrooms VI