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?


2 thoughts on “From the Archives: Caffeine & Headaches”

  1. Interesting. I’ve used caffeine as a migraine abortive for a while now – but only in extreme, “I can’t bear the pain any more” circumstances. Why? Because at the other end of the scale, caffeine is guaranteed to set off my migraine-associated anxiety/panic attacks within half an hour, and it’s a difficult balancing act to get it right.

    For me it’s a question of weighing up the pros and cons. If the pain is really beyond unbearable, I throw caution to the wind and take the risk, but know that I’m probably going to suffer for it. The trick is in being able to remind myself WHY the anxiety is here when it comes.

    The best form I’ve found is a really, really strong double-teabag cup of tea with just a tiny splash of milk, or two on the trot, if I can tolerate it.

    Thanks so much for this wonderful resource, Kerrie.

    What a fine line you have to walk! It’s interesting that it’s easier for you to cope with if you remind yourself that your anxiety is associated with caffeine. That makes a lot of sense.

    Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your experiences with us.


  2. I drink a couple of cups every day, and it’s fine. I do have to be careful to drink plenty of water to offset the coffee’s diuretic properties. I can feel it in my head if I drink coffee and then go the rest of the morning into lunch without any water. It affects my sleep more than anything, if I drink it after noon or so, and trying to quit cold turkey definitely brings on a headache.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m glad you can still enjoy the pleasures of caffeine. 🙂


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