Migraines and Cousin J's Peppers

The launch of this new blogging adventure sadly coincided, for me, with the loss of a beloved uncle.  I traveled back to the hometown area for the funeral and will be here a bit longer to spend some time with mom and Aunt Betty.

I am at the very end of a botox cycle and having near constant daily headache that frequently transforms to migraine with the slightest stress.  Yesterday was a long bittersweet day, with morning's grief of church and cemetery service tempered by sharing of food, memories, and some laughter the rest of the day at church hall and a family home, with all the gathered relatives.

Eventually the relatives began to take their leave, one by one, and only a small group was left.  We gathered around Aunt Betty's kitchen table.  And my cousin noticed the way I was rubbing my forehead, an odd look about my eyes, and a slowing of my voice.  "You're getting a migraine," she said. "Do you want to try a pepper?'

Cousin J, up the street, has a garden with what I have jokingly called magic dirt for some time because of the luscious produce it bountifully produces in such a small area.  He has been growing jalapeno peppers and has found some relief for his own headaches by biting right into them when he feels one coming on.  We had one of his peppers in the house and my relative cleaned and sliced it for me, saving the pith and seeds for extra oopmh if the pepper itself should prove insufficient.  I ate one slice - it was a delicious pepper.  And dang!  I felt a little better. I kept eating.  Chewed a little of the more fiery pith.  By the time I had consumed a whole pepper, the migraine which had indeed been descending had receded, and did not return that evening.

Zuskateers who also suffer from migraine, I ask you:  anyone else ever had a similar response with really hot peppers? It quite surprised me - I was not expecting any noticeable response.  If you try this, remember to wash your hands after handling the pepper - you don't want to rub your tired achy eyes with those jalapeno'd fingers!

37 responses so far

  • Yaz says:

    I've never tried peppers, but I do use peppermint essential oil...which is so cold it burns! It doesn't help with my hardcore think-I'm-having-an-aneurysm-my-will-is-in-the-cabinet... type migraines that I get once in a very rare blue moon (thankfully no more often), but it does wonders with my run of the mill, that-time-of-the-month-kill-me-now migraines. And it slays regular headaches easily. I'll have to give Jalapenos a try. Anything that stops me from popping a Maxalt. Those things are $15-30 a dose!

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I suspect my capsaicin tolerance is a bit higher than most, but around here the noble capsicum tribe is well-known as a remedy for quite a few things. First and most obviously, it's an utterly awesome sinus flush -- Draino for the sinuses. Topically, it's very good for sore muscles and arthritis (Right now I have some on a back muscle that's been complaining.)

    And, yes, I've used them for headaches (I don't get migraines) and it seems to provide relief.

    No, the only thing negative I find about this account is the jalapeno. Not my favorite pepper, at all. I grow serranos, and then mesquite smoke-dry them. As for washing hands, I'd opt for gloves unless you can be very sure you won't be touching any mucous membranes (yours or anyone else's) for a day or so. I found that out the hard way.

  • C. says:

    While pregnant, I read about and experimented with snorted cayenne powder. I was paranoid about taking my usual rescue med, and my migraines often devolve into marathon vomiting, so I was keen to find an alternative. Applied early in the attack, it did knock a few migraines off their usual path, into a fairly painful headache instead of the full tilt ride.

    I wish I'd known that simply eating them would also be effective. A snootful of cayenne is like a pan galactic gargle-blaster, except you're being hit in the face with a real brick wrapped in a slug.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I just realized that I hadn't been clear on route of administration!

    No, intranasal isn't my preferred route. C|N>K with Thai hot and sour soup notwithstanding. There are some Thai restaurants hereabouts which will, if you sign a waiver of liability, crank up the picante to eleven, and a lethal soup seems to be best for therapeutic purposes.

    Moderation with yogurt was something my Indian colleagues taught me. That, or my childhood favorite: orange soda. Seriously.

    YMMV and all that.

  • k8 says:

    I'm totally making sure I have some peppers on hand. I'll try anything to knock one of those babies out.

  • Nat says:

    This is pretty interesting. I have worked a bit about the ion channel protein that is a target of capsaicin, and some literature searching does show that this in the early stages of consideration as a migraine treatment. This is all in the last couple of years though.

    It seems the ion channel activated by capsaicin is located in the trigeminal nerves that line the mouth and nasal passages. These are some of the same nerves that innervate the membranes covering the brain, where the might generate headache, or make you perceive the pain as localized there.

    Capsaicin might work because although it activates the channel, and causes the hot pain sensation, large amount of it will lead to the channel and the nerve becoming desensitized. I've seen capsaicin used on people with peripheral neuropathy, at so high concentrations that the patient needs analgesia to counter the acute pain, and the people applying it are gowned and respiratored up to protect themselves.

    The real issue is trying to find a way to get that desensitization without so much acute pain.

    But, all that is academic. Glad that it helped you out at the nadir of the botox effectiveness!

  • Silver Fox says:

    Thanks for the idea - have never tried it, but will!

  • jc says:

    I'll try it too. I've tried everything else, what the hell! Not sure how my mouth will do with hot pepper (one previous accidental restaurant experience tells me I'll need lots of water and tissues). Plain BBQ sauces are hot to me. Yeah, I'm a lightweight.

  • Lab Rat says:

    @jc: Use yoghurt, rather than water. It really helps with the burning sensation rather than water, which just spreads the burn around a bit.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Use yoghurt, rather than water.

    Dairy (because of fat and natural emulsifiers) will clear topical capsaicin (it's oil-soluble.)
    Carbonated beverages, thanks to the effervescence, also do better than water; that's why beer works.
    Citrus is also a fairly good natural detergent and will clear the heat from your mouth.
    Combinations (fruit yogurt, orange soda, etc. -- I'm not big on yogurt and beer) also work quite well.

    On the other hand, if your objective is to actually get the capsaicin to the nerves there's not much point in carrying it off. From a lifetime of abusing that particular neurotoxin, I'd just suggest titrating up. Starting with something mild and cranking up gradually over the course of a meal might do OK, as would dialing it up over longer periods.

    At least topically, capsaicin is remarkably long-lasting. If I use OTC capsaicin cream on sore muscles, it stops burning perceptibly in a half-hour or so. Sitting on a hot car seat, though, lights it up again. A hot shower even a day and a half later also relights the fire. This suggests that gradual desensitization over a period of hours or days should be effective.

    My (very inexpert) reading of the literature on the mechanisms of capsaicin on pain nerves is that the pain-inducing and pain-blocking effects are somewhat independent: a higher tolerance of comida picante should not interfere with its use in migraine prevention and treatment.

    • jc says:

      One thing I noticed about dairy is that it makes my migraines worse. Citrus is a known migraine trigger food too.

      Has anyone tried capsaicin cream on their heads right where the thumping is? Migraine pain for me is usually right above and behind my right ear. If I can cut off the pain when it's located there, the pain doesn't bounce my left side behind my eye. If I don't beat the right to left movement of the pain, then I'm screwed. Nausea, dizziness, sound and light problems, achyness, piercing pain dial up to 10.

      • Nora Streed says:

        The pain is too close to my eye to put anything right on it; it's practically in my eye socket. But it seems like that's a good idea.

  • parallel says:

    Chilli peppers for migraine, yes. But I had assumed it was the effect on blood vessel dilation rather than the pain-killing properties that does the trick here.

  • parallel says:

    Or possibly other effects of capsaicin on serotonin levels/receptors.

  • Pascale says:

    I also recommend something with fat in it to cut the heat. IMHO butter seems to work the best, although I haven't performed double-blind controlled trials or anything.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    While we're discussing how to get the evil extract into your system without the cure being worse than the complaint, I see that we've been assuming that there's something about the mechanism which requires abuse of the pharyngeal mucosa.

    Pascale brings up blind testing, which would be applicable if the capsaicin were delivered via gelatin capsule. If that works, then the possibilities for the timid of tongue would expand. Cayenne isn't a terribly powerful powder, but it's easy to come by. If you want the serious stuff, it's not too hard to get dry powdered peppers of the hotter varieties. For instance, I have about an ounce of chipotle power that I use by the eight-teaspoon in brownies that's been around for years. Ran into a bunch of other powdered peppers in an herbal shop in Saint Augustine this spring, too.

    I any of y'all who suffer from migraines want to try the experiment and can't find a local source, ping me -- I can share some in the interest of science. Assuming Homeland Security doesn't disappear me for sending neurotoxins through the mail, anyway.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Aaaaggghhh! That's eighth-teaspoon, not eight-teaspoon! That would be way, waaayyy beyond my fairly-high tolerance and into John Yoo territory even in a full batch of brownies.

  • JustaTech says:

    I can't say anything about migraines, but I do remember watching a NOVA program (or Scientific American) a few years ago about using pure capsaicin as a topical treatment for severe nerve pain in the feet. First they numbed the skin, then (everyone wearing protective gear) plastered on the capsaicin paste and letting it sit for an hour or so. If I recall correctly, the premise was that the capsaicin would overwhelm the nerves and make them unable to send pain signals for a few weeks/months.

    Sorry I don't have a better citation.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I can’t say anything about migraines, but I do remember watching a NOVA program (or Scientific American) a few years ago about using pure capsaicin as a topical treatment for severe nerve pain in the feet.

    It's now being used for post-surgical pain control. While the patient is under anaesthesia, the surgeon sprays the edges of surgical wounds with capsaicin and then closes the patient. The pain nerves stay unresponsive long enough for postsurgical pain to subside, with no need for stuff like opiates (with all of their side-effects.)

    Does it show that I have a thing for chilies?

  • Nat says:

    JustaTech: Here's a link to the transcript of the Scientific American Frontiers episode that showed using capsaicin on the guy's legs for prolonged pain relief. It doesn't quite to justice to what it looked like to see people slather the stuff on, while gowned up.

    There's a new approach too, which stems from the fact that when these channels open, they'll let decently large molecules to pass through. My thesis advisor had the idea to use them to introduce charged anesthetic molecules (derivatives of lidocaine) into pain sensing neurons. Once inside the neurons, those molecules block other ion channels required for the nerves to signal, silencing them for a long time. More on that can be found here.

    I wonder if gargling a solution of those lidocaine derivatives mixed with Cousin J's peppers would help.

  • David says:

    Might not work for everyone, and the obvious potential side effects are topical pain and nosebleed (which can be serious and life-threatening). Consult your neurologist. TRPV1 mechanisms are likely to habituate. Still, you're on track with some recent research in the migraine area. CGRP antagonists (talcegepant etc...) presumably act along related pathways. There's a handful of small case reports and series of treating migraine with capsaicin:

    PubMed PMID: 20347391. 12765904. 20456192

    civamide, in development, is a cis-isomer of capsaicin. PMID: 11075845

    good luck.

    (disclaimer: I work for a pharma co, but not on any compounds related to these).

  • Nora Streed says:

    Peppermint oil, yes! or in a pinch a handful of Altoids. Fisherman's Friend cough lozenges, which are disgusting, work moderately well. Also horseradish and wasabi paste are very good.

    I make a summertime lemon grass and hot pepper soup (recipe on request) that gets way spicy and between the hot liquid and the spice it will definitely divert (not cure in progress, alas) many of my migraines and also will relieve sinus irritation/ allergies/ inflammation. And it wakes me the hell up; great for breakfast!

    Tiger balm, which I think contains both mint (menthol) and capsaicin, rubbed gently on the temples- jaw area or for some reason on the back of my neck (yeah, weird), seems to help migraines and other headaches as well.

  • Nora Streed says:

    PS I'm going to try that thing with the brownies, DC. I sometimes make a very intense chocolate ice cream with hot peppers and cinnamon.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I’m going to try that thing with the brownies, DC. I sometimes make a very intense chocolate ice cream with hot peppers and cinnamon.

    Chipotle powder is the best -- not just warm, but smoky. I would have thought that an eighth of a tsp would have been too little, but even a quarter is too much to be good. Mix the powder into the oil before you start (and a bit of cinnamon is also good) and as always use espresso in place of any water.

    The effect is just subtle smoky warmth, which intensifies the chocolate flavor. In six or so years nobody has figured out what the "herbal enhancement" is.

  • prelud says:

    Jalapenos - okay, that`s a remedy I never tried. Sounds scary now, but with migraine approaching I might gather courage for it.

    Nora Streed - could I please have the recipe?

  • Yvonne says:

    Okay this is some serious synchonristic shit. SciAm just put up a post about a study showing capiscum diets lower blood pressure in rats via a chemical sequence that relaxes blood vessels:

    "Activation of TRPV1 by Dietary Capsaicin Improves Endothelium-Dependent Vasorelaxation and Prevents Hypertension." Cell Metabolism, Volume 12, Issue 2, 130-141, 4 August 2010.

    I get opthalmic migraines (psychodelic lightshow with chance of jackhammer to the head) and love cooking with chilis so I'm very glad to find out about this potential link. I'd been thinking it could have something to do with giving nerves something else to complain about, but it looks like it may have to do with lowering blood vessel tension.

  • Nora Streed says:

    Here is the soup recipe: http://alphabitch7.blogspot.com/2005/08/cooking-in-hot-weather.html -- I like to use dried red chilis or thai bird chilis + a fresh jalepeno or serrano. If I don't have those, I will throw in whatever hot thing I can find - red pepper flakes, sambal oelek (that red pepper paste stuff they have at vietnamese and thai restaurants), Texas Pete (tabasco sauce) or whatever.

    Yvonne - someone else just sent me that article too! -- also I get the psychedelic light show plus olfactory hallucinations and large spikes in my head; hardly ever jackhammers, though 🙂

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Nora, I dry home-grown serranos in a smoker with home-grown mesquite. Awesome -- if you can do anything similar you'll love what it does in soups. If not, ping me and I'll take my chances with Homeland Security to send you some.

    Now, as long as we're passing recipes around how about a (I've tried it, it's utterly awesome) green chili/pinon/apple pie? http://www.dailypie.com/

    Dinky little cafe on US 60 at the Continental Divide. Awesome pie.

  • Yes!! I also understand the hypothesis to be that capsaicin is a vessel dilator (much like several migraine rxs). If I can manage to get a spicy meal (the hotter the better) before the migraine goes nauseo-nuclear I often can keep it suppressed to annoying headache level or better. It doesn't always work, but it's happened often enough that I'll give it try - I've never gone straight for the peppers, but I will try it next time.

  • gnuma says:

    Sometimes I get migraine with aura but no headache (aren't aura migraines correlated to stroke risk?). I'll try a bite next time and let you know.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    If you eat peppers which are too hot, a little sugar or salt in your mouth will immediately stop the sensation. ( Have not tried sugar substitues.)

  • Zuska says:

    I had a chance to show this post to Cousin J before I left to drive back home. There were about 12-15 comments on it at that time. He read through the post and comments and then said to me "I already knew all that. If I knew the right words to use, I could have written an article and published a paper on it." Take that, fancy scientific journals!!!! I do think he enjoyed seeing the rapid response and how many people were interested in the hot pepper-migraine link. Like me, he is pleased if more people find some simple method to get some relief.

  • Gingerbaker says:

    "Yes!! I also understand the hypothesis to be that capsaicin is a vessel dilator (much like several migraine rxs)."

    Actually, migraine is a problem caused by over-dilation of cerebral vessels, and migraine-specific medications like Imitrex, Maxalt, etc work to constrict these blood vessels. So capsaicin - if it works at all - is likely to work via a different mechanism.

    Frankly, those of us who get real migraine headaches would be doing ourselves a real favor by not screwing around with nostrums like hot peppers. The key to successful acute migraine treatment is to treat early, early, early and as successfully as possible with a migraine-specific med -a triptan - and at the highest 'legal' tolerable dose. ( Yes - the highest tolerable dose)

    If we wait too long, we not only make it that much harder to resolve that particular headache, but it is more likely that we will get additional migraines. Studies have shown, btw, that the brains of migraineurs actually have a lot of microlesions compared to normals. Think about that the next time you decide you want to risk another full-blown episode to save a few bucks.

    That said, if you do want to try something when you get that feeling you are going to have a real migraine - and I think we all know what that means, right? - the recommendation is to take 1000 mg of Naproxen. But a triptan should really be taken at the first sign of pain if not before. The best way to use them is so early that you don't get the headache at all and it seems like you are wasting your money. You're not.

    Watch for your prodrome, if you have one. I get incredibly stupid about 30-60 minutes before I get a migraine. So stupid I frequently pooh-pooh the idea of getting a tablet handy, but luckily my wife recognizes this lunacy.

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  • Norm says:

    An intleligent answer - no BS - which makes a pleasant change

  • Paul says:


    I have had a migraine for 3 days straight and happend to make some tabasco style sauce with habenero chillies a friend gave me. I tasted some and my migraine is now gone. I am blown away. I've tried everything.

    I found your blog by typing in "chillis migraine" . Its good to hear it works for you too



  • TetraD20 says:

    Pickled Jalapeno Juice works extremely well for me somoene needs to look into this immediately.