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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?

Resources

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Brew Your Own Low-Caf Tea

It’s easy to lower you favorite tea’s caffeine by 80% with this simple home brew shared by Lifehacker. Here’s the trick, according to Tea Time World Wide.

Approximately 80% of the caffeine in tea is released during the first 30-seconds of steeping, therefore to remove most of the caffeine from any tea simply:

  1. Pour boiling water over the tea leaves
  2. Allow the leaves to steep for 30 seconds
  3. Pour out the brew, saving the steeped leaves
  4. Re-steep the same leaves with more boiling water for the recommended steeping times.

Both white and green tea can turn bitter if you steep them even 30 seconds too long, so I’m suspicious of the results unless it’s black tea or yerba maté.

In another Lifehacker post on caffeine, a comment linked to this guide on the caffeine content in food, drinks and medicines. The chart is much more detailed than the one I linked to in my post on caffeine and headache. The medications list includes some headache drugs.

While I’m on the subject… Pre-Imitrex, a friend treated his migraines by gulping a 12-ounce can of Coke. He didn’t drink caffeine any other time and swore that this was the only treatment he responded to. It didn’t abort the migraine, but lessened it’s severity. Now he takes an Imitrex and drinks a Coke and voilà, migraine aborted completely. With the plethora of caffeinated water on the market, even those with nausea could try it.

P.S. In general I’m suspicious of Wikipedia’s accuracy, but the yerba maté information appears to be correct.

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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?

Resources

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Mixed Findings on Caffeine and High Blood Pressue

Non-coffee drinkers who occasionally indulge in a cup of coffee are likely to have their blood pressure increase as their bodies take in the caffeine. People who practically mainline it (like me) or even just drink it regularly may also experience higher blood pressure. If a recent study, published in the May issue of the American Journal of Hypertension, on this phenomenon is supported by further research, it’s possible to conclude that the more frequently someone drinks coffee, the more often his or her blood pressure is elevated.

But, other studies have not found a conclusive link between coffee and high blood pressure. A 12-year long Harvard study of more than 155,000 female nurses, the results of which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on November 9, shows no connection between coffee consumption and a rise in blood pressure for women. In fact, women who drank the most coffee seemed to develop a protection against the problem. Whether this is true in men is under investigation.

And another but… The findings about coffee intake can’t exactly be generalized to include all caffeine. The Harvard study found a much greater risk of high blood pressure in women who drank caffeinated soda. However, researchers suspect that some other ingredient in soda is the cause for the increase.

I learned about the article in American Journal of Hypertension from James of Relieve Migraine Headache, who posted on it yesterday.

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Rebound Rebound

A 2003 study found that more than a third of patients treated for rebound headaches from analgesics begin overusing that medication again within a year. This is greater than the percentage who return to using triptans or ergots.

Considering that painkillers are pretty effective when people first start taking them, this makes a lot of sense. Over time, they become less helpful and lull you into rebound. Sounds a lot like the trap of caffeine.