Hot Sauce in the Nose for Cluster Headaches?

Image Credit: Soumayadeep Paul. This image has been modified.

Natural Treatment for Cluster Headaches

In a study “Secretion, Pain and Sneezing Induced by the Application of Capsaicin to the Nasal Mucosa in Man,” researchers found that if we cut a hot pepper and rub it inside our nostrils, our nose will start running, hurting, and we’ll start sneezing (capsaicin is the burning component of hot peppers). Why would anyone do this experiment? Anyone who’s handled hot peppers knows if it gets up your nose it causes an intense burning sensation. However, the researchers noted, “this phenomenon has not been formally investigated.” So they decided it “appeared worthwhile to study the effects produced by the topical application of capsaicin in the human [nose].” It appeared worthwhile because… it had never been done before.

So they took some medical students, dripped some in their nose and the poor students started sneezing, burning, and snotting — describing the pain at about eight or nine on a scale of one to ten. No surprise, but here’s the interesting part: What happened when they repeated the experiment the next day? You’d think they might be sensitized to it, still all irritated, so it might hurt even worse, but no–it hurt less. Then they did it again the next day and the next. By day five it hardly hurt at all, they didn’t even get a runny nose. Day ten, and still nothing.

Were they permanently numbed? No. After a month or so the desensitization wore off and they were back in agony whenever they tried rubbing it in their nose. What the researchers think is happening is that the pain fibers, the nerves that carry pain sensation, dumped so much of the pain neurotransmitter (called substance P) that they ran out. Day after day of this, the nerves had exhausted their stores and could no longer transmit pain messages until they made more from scratch, which took a couple weeks. This gave researchers an idea.

There’s a rare headache syndrome called cluster headache. It has been described as one of the worst pains humans experience. Few, if any, medical disorders are more painful. It’s nicknamed the “suicide headache” because patients often consider taking or have taken their lives over it.

It’s thought to be caused by arterial dilation putting pressure on the trigeminal nerve in the face. Treatments involve everything from nerve blocks to Botox to surgery. But that same nerve goes down to the nose. What if we cause the whole nerve to dump all its substance P?

Same as before, daily capsaicin was applied in the nose and by day five, they could hardly feel it any more. As seen in my video, Hot Sauce in the Nose for Cluster Headaches?, what the wimpy medical students rated as an eight or nine on the pain scale, those used to the violence of the cluster headache attacks rated a three or four. So, after having achieved desensitization, what happened to their headaches?

Cluster headaches are one-sided headaches; there’s only pain on one side of the head. Those who rubbed capsaicin in the nostril on the opposite side of the head had nothing happen. They started out having around 40 attacks a day, and a month later the headaches were still going strong. Those that rubbed capsaicin in the nostril on the side of the head where the headaches were, cut the average number of attacks in half, and in fact half the patients were cured–the cluster headaches were gone completely. All in all, 80% responded, which is at least equal to if not better than all the current therapies out there.

This extraordinary effect reminds me of the findings in Lavender for Migraine Headaches.

Headache sufferers may additionally want to experiment with avoiding potential triggers such as aspartame (see my video Diet Soda and Preterm Birth). Saffron may also help with headaches (Saffron for the Treatment of PMS), and so might avoiding certain parasites (Pork Tapeworms on the Brain and Avoiding Epilepsy Through Diet). A note of caution, though: Pregnant migraine sufferers seeking natural remedies should be wary of advice they may get (Dangerous Advice From Health Food Store Employees).

Those eating healthy diets are less likely to be on pain medications in general (Say No to Drugs by Saying Yes to More Plants). See, for example:

Might the consumption of hot peppers also successfully desensitize the gut? Find out in my video, Cayenne Pepper for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Indigestion.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

18 responses to “Natural Treatment for Cluster Headaches

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  1. Hi Dr. Greger I helped my brother stop his cluster headaches (he had contemplated suicide previous they were so bad). Since I knew that herpes had been found to be involved in arteriosclerosis and I knew what aggravated my own fever blister outbreaks (I can only eat high arginine nuts if I stay away from dairy). I believe the milk products stimulate some kind of autoimmune overreaction; certainly in myself dairy causes some kind of blister forming overreaction – perhaps related to the mucus they.produce. So I surmised that herpes in his arteries could be causing swelling and pressure. Be that as it may I told him to stop smoking and give up dairy (and animal foods in general) and the cluster headaches he usually had a couple times a month, lasting in 3-6 months cycles, went away permanently until he died over 5 years later from a heart attack (he had gone back to animal foods as a result of the influence of a relationship with someone who liked to go out to eat fast foods a lot) sigh. I think they will eventually find the connection; anyway I think you are a nutritional genius thank you so much for all your efforts.

    1. Martha: Great job figuring that out. I’m sorry you lost your brother. You made a significant difference in his life. I’m sure he appreciated you greatly.

      Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. I used to suffer from migraine headaches.
    Several years ago, I was in a NYU headache study,
    hospitalized for a week.
    All the medications I had to take, including one that was a pen
    injection, had side effects.
    My son, was into vitamin supplements, and who go to the
    India store to get spices that he used as medicine.
    He brought me Turmeric Extract and Magnesium from
    Vitamin Shop. I took them and my headache lifted, it went away,
    and I did not feel woozy, or lightheaded, like I did with the medications.
    That was over a decade ago, I am still taking Turmeric Extract
    and Magnesium and have never had another migraine headache.
    The migraines lasted for days and I seriously thought that death
    was better than the pain.

  3. Re: ‘ “suicide headache” ‘…caused by arterial dilation putting pressure on the trigeminal nerve in the face.’
    FYI- our dog died& that’s when the TMJ began…being hit by a car/falling out of a tree was nothing compared to the kaleidoscope of pain that ensued…after a month, the mechanic’s part of my brain kicked in: it takes 43 muscles to frown and 17 to smile…turned that dead dog eared frown upsidedown…hasta la vista TMJ. Those 43 muscles not only bear down on the hefty tmj , but on the fragile nerves as well…what came first, the chicken or the egg,eh?

  4. Stress and other mental related disorders affect people, due to the hectic lifestyle that we lead nowadays. Kratom Capsules products also make one feel calmer and ensure that one is more alert. At we supply our customers Pure Quality Kratom Capsules to relieve with this type of problem.

  5. My grand mother of 83 years old have got Herpes zoster few weeks ago and she have for 3 days the terrible postherpetic neuralgia. a chronic pain for few seconds many times a day. it was very intense each time.
    normally when is that bad , Doctors give Opiate drugs, but she can not take for other reasons.and what they give to her dint work at all . So i tried (after read hear about it) putting cayenne with olive oil in her skin in all the area of pain. 4 times a day. in one day the attacks reduce in intensity and quantity more than 80 % she just have pain in little area that i didn’t put the spicy oil . so i did there. and the next day and next 6 days (until now) there is no pain at all. (more than the strange feeling that the virus give you)(now i’m putting the oil 2 times a day and there is no irritation,) (note that i put the oil on top of the already cure skin) and she didn’t have any bad sensation during that, not burn not pain,and she was careful that she dont touch eyes or nous with the oil.

    ps:my aunt has that a year ago, and the postherpetic neuralgia remain for a month when she was taking very strong opiate drugs.
    and thats the time that you expect to have this pain..
    so im looking foward to know more about this natural pain killer :) thank you!

    2ps: by the way she now is on plant based diet (it is in my hands), with all the best i could do with anti inflammatory food and surprised her memory and attention came back. and her doc have to minimize high pressure pill to half. in two weeks.

    and since a week she is eating high lysine low arginine foods for the virus

  6. A neurologist has a nasal spray he made specifically for headaches with the pepper components in it. It burns right away but takes the headache away after about 5 minutes. It is called ausanil.

    1. WOW…just looked it up and bookmarked it. When you suffer from clusters, and are currently gowing through a bought, the search is never ending until the pain is gone!

  7. I Dr Greger my son has just started with cluster headaches entering his 2nd cycle. I read your page about capsicum cream and would like to know which cream to buy. Is there also any other alternative to medications as these headaches are threatning his career.
    thanks Jack

  8. Ok! What about Trigeminal Neuralgia? This is known as the suicide disease. Occipital Neuralgia causes cluster headaches, and TN causes that same pain over the face and into the head. Will the results be the same? I am desperate to find a natural relief, rather than be on the anti-seizure meds.

  9. I really want to know if this helps on TN as well. If you had an answer Elizabeth please let me know. I also suffer from TN.

  10. Thank you, Dr. Greger! I always admired you but now I love you!

    I have had one-sided headaches for years, mostly starting mid night and not going away until I had caffeinated coffee; in bad days I started to get up in the middle of the night to make coffee, as I got smarter, I made coffee the day before and drank that when I couldn’t go back to sleep.

    Then, one day, the coffee didn’t do it. I checked online again, et voila! Capsaicin! I snorted some cayenne powder, and within half an hour the pain was greatly reduced and an hour later, it was gone! I won’t forget this. I prefer snorting cayenne to drinking coffee.

    I also would think using cayenne will help clear my sinuses.

    Bless you!

  11. Hi,

    Hoping all is well!

    Was interested to know if have a quick second to connect about some tactics where I think we can help generate more calls/leads for

    All I’d need to get underway is if it’s OK for my partners to briefly give you a buzz at your direct line and what the best time would be.


  12. Hi …i have classic trigeminal neuralgia (blood vessel compress on nerve..).like cluster headaches it is off the scale pain. howevr i have found that using curcumin at the lower and middle pain levels it takes the pain away.. i can only guess it is the anti inflamatory and maybe blood thinning ? that achieves this…do you have any theories or further advice on this…thank you…John

  13. Hi John- I cannot find any published research on this specifically, but, as you point out, cur curcumin has anti-inflammatory effects, and this may be a mechanism of action for the response you’re getting. Its use is not harmful, so it is reasonable to keep using. In the interest of science, perhaps you might keep a notebook of your pain, before and at a set time after the use of curcumin. Include how much you take in. It would also be useful to compare to a time when you don’t use curcumin. Let your neurologist know of your findings as well. Best luck! Dr Anderson, Health Support Volunteer

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