Many of us rely on coffee to wake us up in the morning and to carry us through our busy workdays. When you feel incapable of getting out of bed on a Monday morning, there’s coffee, ready and waiting to make it all a bit easier. Unfortunately, our greatest friend can sometimes turn into our worst enemy when it comes to migraines.
Today we’re talking about what migraines are, what triggers them, how caffeine can cause migraines, and what you can do if you love coffee but suffer from headaches or migraines. Migraines caused by caffeine shouldn’t mean you that you are forced to go without coffee!
What Causes Migraines?
Migraines are characterized as extremely painful headaches that can be so severe that they are even accompanied by nausea or vomiting. These severe headaches can last for hours or even days. This condition can be incredibly debilitating and include a variety of different frustrating symptoms.
A few of the common symptoms associated with migraines include:
- Severe headaches
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- Pain on one side of the head
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty concentrating
Before we get into why caffeine causes migraines in some people, let’s look at a few of the risk factors and common triggers of migraines:
- Gender (Women are three times more likely to experience migraines than men)
- Irregular eating habits
- Certain foods (i.e. caffeine, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, frozen foods and foods containing MSG, etc.)
- Hormonal changes
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Physical overexertion
Caffeine - a Cure and a Curse
You may have heard some people say that a certain amount of caffeine helps when they’re experiencing a headache. Since you’re reading this article, we’re willing to bet that you don’t find yourself in this camp. So why does coffee seem to aid those around you in reducing the symptoms associated with headaches while ramping them up in your case?
According to the American Migraine Foundation, caffeine’s effects on the brain can actually vary widely from person to person.
To some people, caffeine can provide a temporary relief when they have headaches. Caffeine helps reduce inflammation, and that can bring relief depending on the cause of your migraine.
Oddly enough, what makes caffeine effective in relieving some headaches can also cause others. Caffeine causes the blood vessels that surround your brain to constrict. When you stop taking it, the effect wears off and these blood vessels expand again, which can cause the pain to come back worse than before. This effect is known as “rebound” headaches.
To some people, caffeine can also cause an attack because caffeine acts on certain neurotransmitter receptors in the brain that are linked with migraines.
Whether caffeine can help you or hurt you also largely depends on your headache type. Doctors recommend that patients with episodic migraine should limit their caffeine intake. Patients with daily headaches should consider avoiding caffeine completely. Another very rare condition called hypnic headaches responds especially well to caffeine. This type of migraine tends to strike older people, waking them in the middle of the night with severe pain. Surprisingly enough doctors often tell people who get these to have a cup of coffee before bed.
However, to the most people, if you’re suffering from migraines, evidence shows that cutting out caffeine completely could significantly improve the effectiveness of other migraine treatments. One study found that 72% of migraine patients who cut out caffeine entirely reported excellent efficacy for the treatment they received compared to only 40% of patients who continued drinking caffeine.
Caffeine Withdrawal – More Headaches When You Stop Consuming Caffeine
Caffeine is commonly used in many beverages and foods, and is the world's most frequently used additive, which sometimes makes people forget it’s also a drug and psychoactive substance.
Like most other drugs, when consumed regularly, you can build up a tolerance to caffeine, develop a physical dependence, and experience terrible withdrawal symptoms when you stop consuming it.
Studies have demonstrated that people who take in a minimum of 100 mg of caffeine per day (about the amount in one cup of coffee) for even just 7 days can acquire a physical dependence that can trigger withdrawal symptoms. If our brains sense that we aren’t supplying enough caffeine, we will begin to experience caffeine withdrawal.
What do these withdrawal symptoms typically involve? You guessed it – migraines.
Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms
Let’s talk a bit more in-depth about the common symptoms associated with caffeine withdrawal.
Headaches, which can range from dull and constant to severe migraines, are the most common effects of caffeine withdrawal. Other common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include:
- Fatigue/Low energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Depressed mood
If you’re a frequent coffee drinker and have found yourself suffering a headache or even a migraine on Saturday or Sunday after missing your morning coffee, caffeine withdrawal is likely to blame. Usually the headache inducing effects of caffeine withdrawal will subside after you have a cup of coffee or another caffeinated drink. Unfortunately, this is only a temporary solution, and the more frequently you drink caffeine the more severe the withdrawal symptoms will likely be if you don’t consume your normal amount of caffeine.
If you’re considering quitting caffeine, the best approach to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches is to slowly reduce your daily caffeine intake instead of quitting cold turkey. Try mixing regular coffee with decaf coffee to gradually reduce your caffeine consumption.
So, if we get headaches when we stop drinking coffee, why don’t we just drink more coffee?
While you may think that simply upping your dose should solve the problem, this is far from the case.
A side effect of caffeine is that it causes the blood vessels around the brain to constrict, limiting and slowing blood flow throughout. With such a sudden change in blood flow, severe headaches and migraines can occur and these symptoms typically only reduce in severity as caffeine’s effect on our brain subsides.
So, while the easy answer may seem to be an increase in caffeine consumption, the opposite is actually true. The greater quantity of caffeine your brain has to process, the worse your symptoms when you stop.
In addition, like other drug, caffeine can build up a tolerance in your body, causing you to need more and more caffeine to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
What Can Be Done?
The American Migraine Foundation recommends that patients with a history of severe or chronic migraines consider eliminating caffeine from their diet completely - at least for several months in order to give the body time to benefit. We’re sensing some audible gasps here but don’t worry - coffee lovers don’t have to go without.
Truth be told, many of us drink coffee for both the buzz and the incredible taste. Coffee is just plain delicious. Quitting caffeine doesn’t mean you have to quit coffee.
If you enjoy the taste and the smell of coffee and love your morning routine of making a delicious pot, consider switching to decaf. We created Cupper to bring you the best decaf has to offer, with single origins and unique blends from America’s best roasters. All of our coffees are roasted to order so that you can enjoy a fresh and delicious cup of coffee without the potentially headache inducing effects of caffeine. We stand by our promise of delivering high-quality roasts that promote quality sleep, balanced energy, and a better overall mood without the fearsome caffeine crash.
The best part of drinking decaf coffee? You can relax and enjoy a cup in the morning or night without putting your body through the caffeine burden or sacrificing your beauty sleep.