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Caffeine & Headache

Caffeine is often cited as a headache trigger, but it can be an effective abortive too. Many headache medicines even contain caffeine. Some books say to avoid caffeine at all costs, others warn that you not go over two cups a day.

As with every other headache treatment, it seems, the answer lies in your knowledge of your body. For years I thought my headaches were caused by withdrawal. Turns out I just have chronic daily headaches and caffeine reduces the pain.

I can drink caffeine daily without apparent ill effects, but I prefer to save it to use as a headache abortive. For many other people, drinking it regularly triggers headaches.

Part of finding the right balance between a helpful level and an excessive amount is figuring out just how much caffeine you consume. There are charts of caffeine levels in foods and drinks, but the solution is murkier than it seems.

  • Sensitivity varies widely from one person to the next. Researchers attribute this to genetics and weight.
  • Consuming caffeine right after eating a meal can slow down its effect.
  • Nicotine is thought to stimulate enzymes that break caffeine down, so smokers can often tolerate higher doses of caffeine.
  • Espresso doesn’t have more caffeine than drip coffee; it just has a stronger taste.
  • Coffee and espresso at Starbucks have a higher caffeine content than what you make at home or get at a fast food restaurant or another coffeehouse.
  • Chocolate has more caffeine than you think it does (at least more than I thought it did).
  • Green tea has less caffeine than black tea. White tea has even less.

I was only able to figure out my body’s relationship to caffeine by going off it. My strategy is to gradually decreasing the amount that I drank until I was caffeine-free. (Some people go cold turkey, but that’s more misery than I care to bear. The nasty withdrawal headache can last from a few days to several weeks.) After that I played around with different levels of consumption.

What are your experiences with caffeine? Does it help, hurt or is it somewhere in between?

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7 Responses to Caffeine & Headache

  1. dn says:

    Caffeine helps me for a day or two, then starts doing more harm than good.

  2. Christine says:

    After I read David Buchholz’s book “Heal Your Headache”, I gave up caffeine (along with a lot of other things). I didn’t have any caffeine for almost a year. It didn’t seem to make the slightest difference to my headaches. About 10 days ago, I figured what the hell and started drinking one or two cups of black tea a day, and again, no difference in headaches. At least now I can look forward to a cup of tea when I get up in the morning–herb tea hardly seemed worth getting out of bed for!

  3. Sarah says:

    Caffeine is definitely not my friend and i avoid it except in the small amount of chocolate contained in 1/2 of a Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookie, and an occasional indulgence in a slice of out-of-this-world chocolate cake from a local bakery. Although I can get away with the 1/2 cookie, the cake may require me to pay penance in the form of meds to abort a migraine. So far the meds have always worked, however, should they cease to work, I would sadly sacrifice my beloved cake. (This is starting to sound like Kerrie’s love affair with peanut butter.)

  4. Christina P says:

    Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, as are many migraine-specific medications, like triptans and ergots. And, caffeine is an ingredient of Excedrin and other analgesics used to treat headache. So, used judiciously and in moderation, it can help.

    But that’s the key word here. Moderation. Because used in excess–and your mileage will most definitely vary based on individual sensitivity–it can increase headache frequency and severity by affecting blood vessel reactivity.

    That doesn’t mean I am giving up chocolate or white tea, though. 🙂

  5. Diana says:

    I tried giving up caffeine as part of an elimination diet. I didn’t see any change in the frequency of my migraines, so I added it back.

    I strive to be consistent about the amount I take in. I have found that not having any or having too much in a given day are equally dangerous for me.

  6. Kerrie says:

    Thanks for the great comments. It definitely sounds like moderation and consistency (two things I’m terrible at!) are key.

    K

  7. Judy Miller says:

    I have had chronic pain in my neck for years. I refer to it as “neck migraines” as it finally envelops the whole head and is debilitating. I have gone to every kind of doctor on the face of the Earth, and have had PT, traction, etc, all without any success in eliminating the pain. I don’t do well with prescribed pain killers, and the only thing that works at all, are aspirin with an Excedrin.
    I have been a coffee drinker all my life, and after reading the book, “Welcome to the Dance”, I decided to eliminate the caffeine, thinking that maybe it was the cause of all my pain. I took several weeks weaning myself off of it, and then was totally caffeine free for 3 months. It made little or no difference in the pain. Only now, I could not have the Excedrin, because of the caffein in it, and the aspirin nor Tylenol did not begin to work. So I had some pretty good headaches during this time.
    I decided that the cause could not be caffeine.
    I then started Prolotherapy for the pain in my head and shoulders (which is also chronic)
    They advise against aspirin because they do not want me taking anti-inflammatories with the treatment.
    So, with the only OTC pain killer that works taken away from me, I have had some very severe headaches.
    What I started doing is fixing me a good, strong cup of coffee, and guess what? Within the hour the pain is gone or greatly diminished. I do not think this is a case of caffeine addiction or the rebound effect. I have only been having one cappuccino mixed with a little coffee once a day, and I never was a heavy coffee drinker.
    I have read where coffee is not a pain killer in itself, but rather an adjuvant for other pain killers. You would have a hard time convincing me of this, because in my case, the caffeine appears to be acting as a pain killer.
    If anyone can help me to understand this, I would really appreciate it!

    Thanks,
    Judy
    judy@windriftersiberians.com

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