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Caffeine Withdrawal Headaches

Caffeine can be a wonderful headache and migraine abortive. Use it too much and the withdrawal headache can be an unspeakable hell. Good thing I was in need of a post topic for today when the caffeine headache fairy visited me last night.

As with all of my abortives, I use caffeine no more than twice a week. Less than once a month I indulge when I need energy or really want coffee and the only decaf available is chemically processed. I stretch these rules when I’m traveling or have something big going on. Like when my niece was here last week.

I’ve been testing my caffeine boundaries in the last couple months anyway. I noticed in May that it didn’t seem to be working as well as it used to (and neither was Advil, my other abortive of choice). Before I realized I had a headache disorder, I drank caffeine when I felt a headache coming on, thinking that I was staying on top of caffeine withdrawal. Hart maintains — and I’ve come to agree — that the caffeine aborted migraines, not treated caffeine withdrawal headaches.

So I haven’t been as strict with my rules in the last couple months. Then when my niece was here, I was even more lax with my caffeine intake. After she left, the old guidelines didn’t kick in. And last night I had a horrendous caffeine withdrawal headache.

I assumed it was a migraine, even though it felt different than migraines that have been plaguing my sleep for the last year. I tried to sleep it off, but felt worse each time I woke up — not characteristic of my migraines at all. At 12:45 this afternoon, I finally acknowledged that I had a caffeine headache and dragged myself out of bed to medicate.

90 minutes later, I’ve finished my cup of tea. It took the edge off, but the dramatic soothing that caffeine brings to a withdrawal headache was absent. Maybe it was a migraine all along. In any case, I have a post written and now I can go back to being like the man who has been hiccuping for 45 years:

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From the Archives: Caffeine & Headaches

This post is from September 29, 2006.

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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