Caution on Mixing Herbal, Migraine Meds

ByABC News
June 18, 2003, 1:26 PM

June 19 -- It's a case of the cure being worse than the disease, and of a headache with a sting that could kill.

An extensive review of existing research has led University of Utah researchers to conclude several popular herbal supplements may cause adverse, even deadly, reactions when combined with certain migraine medications.

More than 40 percent of Americans have used herbal remedies, and 30 million suffer from migraines. It is not clear, however, how many migraine sufferers use herbal remedies.

But the risks are real. The study, to be presented today at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society in Chicago, found five of the 10 most popular herbal supplements may interact adversely with medications commonly prescribed to alleviate migraine and cluster headaches.

Among the herbal supplements that can interfere with the proper metabolism of certain migraine medications, causing levels of the drugs to reach toxic levels, are Gingko biloba, ginseng, echinacea, St. John's wort, and large amounts of garlic.

The Risk of Drug-Drug Enhancement

The risks of taking herbal medications for migraine sufferers include "drug interactions and the fact that herbal supplements can make people worse," notes Dr. Bob Kaniecki, director of the Headache Center and assistant professor of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

Migraine headaches are a manifestation of a sensitive nervous system. "Taking medications that stimulate an already sensitive nervous system aggravates migraine," says Kaniecki. He specifically implicated the herbal medications ephedra and ginseng as potential risks for migraine sufferers.

"Gingko and garlic interact with certain antiplatelet agents like aspirin, which results in increased frequency of bruising," explains Dr. Alan Towne, professor and chair of neurology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

One herbal substance, St. John's wort, is marketed as an antidepressant, and is a mild version of an older class of antidepressants. The danger surfaces when a migraine patient is taking both St. John's wort and a prescription antidepressant for migraine relief, says study lead author Dr. Carla Rubingh, clinical pharmacist at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center in Salt Lake City.