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What’s the Link Between Caffeine and Headaches?

Figuring out the connection between caffeine and headaches can be tricky. You might notice that you end up with a headache when you overdo it on Starbucks or Dunkin. So you grab an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever, and what’s one of the ingredients? Caffeine. 

The next day, you decide you need to give up caffeine. Guess what? Another headache strikes. What’s the deal?

Caffeine and headaches have a long history together. Caffeine is a stimulant and you won’t just find it in coffee. “There’s caffeine in chocolate, certain teas, energy drinks and some soft drinks. Even decaffeinated coffee contains a small amount of caffeine,” said Tina Chavez, a nurse practitioner with Banner Brain & Spine who specializes in neurology.

Part of the confusion around caffeine and headaches is that it affects people differently. Some people find their headaches get better with caffeine, while others notice it triggers their headaches.

Chavez explained more about the connection.

What is caffeine, anyway?

Caffeine is a common natural stimulant that people eat and drink around the world. When you ingest caffeine, it enters your bloodstream and travels to your brain. There, it blocks a neurotransmitter that normally makes you relaxed and sleepy. So caffeine makes you feel awake and alert.

When caffeine hits your brain, it also triggers the brain to release other neurotransmitters. They can improve your mood and thinking and increase your heart rate and blood pressure. 

These factors may play a role in how caffeine affects you:

  • Genetic factors: They can influence how your body metabolizes caffeine.
  • Caffeine sensitivity: If you’re more sensitive to caffeine than others, you could get headaches even when you only have a small amount of caffeine.
  • How often and when you have caffeine: If you have caffeine regularly, you may need a higher dose to get the same effect. If you stop having caffeine cold turkey or you have a lot more than you usually do, you might get a headache.
  • Other lifestyle factors: Diet, how much water you drink, sleep and stress can all impact how caffeine affects you.

The caffeine-headache connection

Caffeine can tighten your blood vessels and reduce inflammation. If you get tension headaches, these effects might help. “Blood vessels tend to dilate before a headache. Since caffeine narrows blood vessels, it may prevent headaches,” Chavez said. That’s why some headache medications include caffeine. 

“If you want to try caffeine medications for migraine for the first time, you should speak with a doctor or pharmacist,” she said.

If you get migraines, caffeine could trigger the intense pain and sensitivity to light and sound that comes with them. “If you suspect that caffeine may be a factor in your migraine headaches, you should keep a migraine diary to track your intake and symptoms. You could also try weaning off caffeine to see if it helps,” Chavez said.

“If you get a headache when you consume caffeine, water might be the best way to find relief as it will counter the dehydration brought on by caffeine,” she said.

What to know about caffeine withdrawal headaches

If you’re accustomed to your morning coffee or another regular source of caffeine, stopping all of a sudden could lead to caffeine withdrawal headaches.

“Since caffeine narrows blood vessels around the brain when you stop consuming it, the blood vessels enlarge. This causes an increase in blood flow around the brain and puts pressure on surrounding nerves, triggering caffeine withdrawal headaches,” Chavez said.

These headaches usually strike 12 to 24 hours after you stop caffeine, and they could last for several days. Along with a throbbing headache, you might notice you’re tired or sluggish, and you have trouble concentrating and sleeping.

If you want to cut back or stop consuming caffeine without getting headaches, try scaling back over time instead of all at once.

Tips for cutting back on caffeine

If you feel like you’re overdoing it on coffee, tea, energy drinks or other sources of caffeine, step one is to know how much caffeine you’re taking in. It can be tough to calculate exactly — a cup of brewed coffee, for example, could have 70 to 140 milligrams of caffeine. Reading nutrition labels and checking online databases can help. 

Next, create a plan for scaling back. You might want to switch to smaller serving sizes or eliminate a serving every few days. It might help to try alternatives like decaf coffee or herbal tea. That way, you can still enjoy your favorite flavors and rituals.

Be sure to stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of plain, fruit-infused or sparkling water can help fight caffeine withdrawal symptoms like headache and fatigue. Stress-reduction techniques like mindfulness or relaxation exercises can also help keep withdrawal symptoms at bay.

If you’re noticing a lot of withdrawal symptoms, you might be scaling back too quickly. You may want to level off for a couple of days, then move toward your goal again.

How much caffeine is too much?

For most adults, up to 400 milligrams a day is considered safe. That’s roughly the amount in four cups of brewed coffee (some energy drinks have more than 500 milligrams).

However, it’s important to pay attention to how caffeine affects you, especially if you’re prone to headaches or sensitive to it. A moderate amount of caffeine may help you feel alert and focused, while too much can trigger headaches, send your heart racing and keep you up all night.

“There is a lot about the connection between caffeine consumption and migraine headaches that remains uncertain. Until we know more, it seems wise to listen to your body: if you notice more headaches when you drink more coffee (or other caffeinated beverages), cut back,” Chavez said. 

Other tips for managing headaches

Caffeine isn’t the only culprit when it comes to headaches. If scaling back caffeine isn’t helping, you may want to:

  • Manage stress: Stress is a common trigger for headaches, so techniques like mindfulness, meditation or deep breathing exercises may help.
  • Get enough good sleep: Poor sleep habits can make your headaches worse and make caffeine withdrawal headaches more likely. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep with a consistent schedule every night.
  • Stay hydrated: Dehydration can contribute to headaches, so make sure to drink enough decaf beverages, water, herbal tea or fruit-infused water.
  • Eat a balanced diet: Nutritional deficiencies and irregular eating patterns can contribute to headaches, so choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. Avoid skipping meals, since low blood sugar levels may trigger headaches.
  • Practice good posture: Poor posture can strain the muscles in the neck and shoulders and lead to tension headaches. 

Do you need medical care for your headaches?

You can probably manage occasional headaches on your own. But some symptoms may be signs of a medical emergency. Get care right away for:

  • A sudden, severe headache that’s different from your usual headaches: This could be a symptom of a stroke or brain hemorrhage.
  • Headaches with neurological symptoms: Weakness, numbness, vision changes, difficulty speaking or loss of consciousness may be signs of a more serious condition.
  • Headaches with fever, stiff neck or light sensitivity: These could be signs of meningitis, a potentially life-threatening infection.
  • New-onset headaches if you’re over 50: These headaches could be caused by a type of inflammation in your blood vessels (temporal arteritis) or brain tumors, especially if they’re persistent or progressive.
  • Headaches after a head injury: These could be signs of concussion or bleeding around the brain.

If you often have headaches that are interfering with your life, talk to a health care provider. You could have an underlying problem or need prescription medication. It’s a good idea to seek care for:

  • Headaches more than 15 days per month or headaches that persist for several months.
  • Headaches that affect your ability to work, study or take part in activities.
  • Headaches that aren’t responding to lifestyle changes, OTC pain relievers or stress-reduction techniques.
  • Overusing medication to control headaches, which could put you at risk for medication overuse headaches.

The bottom line

When it comes to caffeine and headaches, different people notice different effects. Some find that caffeine helps relieve their headaches, while others find it triggers them. And many people don’t notice an effect — until they go without caffeine and get hit with a withdrawal headache.

If you think caffeine might be behind your headaches, you can try scaling back gradually. If your headaches are severe or you can’t get them under control on your own, connect with a health care provider. The experts at Banner Health can help evaluate your headaches and create a treatment plan. 

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