Cluster headache is an excruciating condition that affects about 0.04% of the population. They occur much more often in men than women and are described as feeling like an intense pressure behind the skull and daggers being forced through the eye. The pain can be so debilitating that it has led some sufferers to suicide. Unfortunately, doctors don’t know what causes cluster headaches or how to cure them – so people have started to look for their own answers.

Dr Andrew Sewell of Yale Medical School came across anecdotal reports that cluster attacks could be stopped by eating Morning Glory seeds, which contain a substance similar to LSD. Claudia Hammond spoke to Professor Monique Simmonds from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London about the Morning Glory plant, and to Dr Sewell about whether the seeds really work.

One of the problems with medicines found in nature is that the strength of plant chemicals vary and you can’t be sure what you’re getting. This has proved to be a problem in Taiwan, one of many countries where Traditional Chinese Medicine is often used in preference to modern drugs. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that a once popular herb called aristolochia causes mutations in the DNA that lead to upper urinary tract cancer. Although the herb is now banned, the effects of over-using the herb are still being felt. Claudia Hammond speaks to reporter Cindy Sui in Taiwan about the use of herbal medicine and how the government has opened advice centres to encourage people to use Traditional Chinese Medicine safely.

With careful study and the right conditions, even the most controversial compounds can bring benefits – including those found in magic mushrooms. The active ingredient in this psychedelic fungus is a chemical called psilocybin - which, like the LSA in Morning Glory seeds, is very similar to LSD. Back in the 1950s and 60s, researchers tried giving LSD to people with terminal cancer and found that they became a lot less anxious about their condition. Fifty years later, Professor Charles Grob at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine followed up these findings by using psilocybin, which is chemically very similar. Health Check reporter Jon Stewart went to meet Professor Grob and listened to the experience of Pam, who took part in the study several years ago and has since passed away.

(Image: a woman holding her head in her hands. Credit: Press Association)

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18 minutes

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Sun 1 Jul 2012 02:32 GMT

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