Few simple pleasures are gleaned within the early hours of a day—but a freshly brewed cup of coffee might just as easily be one of them. The morning cup might be a necessary precursor as they gear up for a slew of morning meetings, but for some, it is perhaps the simple act of a fragrant coffee pour that helps to bring about a sense of calm and balance to the day. Whatever it may be, there is no denying that many have developed a clear reliance on the cup of brew considering it’s even achieved its own cult status. Aficionados would purport that the origin of the bean is paramount, and the method of brewing or grinding the coffee is also a determining factor in the acidity and consequent taste of the drink. This reliance or dependence on caffeine however, is something many often overlook—until one is hit with an intense migraine that follows from a possible delay in their daily coffee intake.
Enter: the caffeine headache. Often associated with caffeine withdrawals, the solution many of us often seek out immediately is a cup of coffee to nourish the caffeine-starve; a valid conclusion for those who have been psychologically conditioned to believe that a cup of coffee does wonders in keeping their bodies energised and their minds alert. Yet a curious Google search might lead you to the confusing paradox: of how caffeine works as both the solution and trigger to a debilitating migraine. Contrary to a caffeine withdrawal, the latter possibly manifests from one too many cups of coffee instead.
But this begs the question: with caffeine being a double-edged sword, when is a headache just a headache, and when is it a caffeine-induced one? In an attempt to clear the fog surrounding the complex matter, we speak to Dr. Whitney Chua of WhiteCoat to weigh in and give us the be-all and end-all of caffeine-related headaches from a professional doctor’s perspective, down below.
What exactly are caffeine headaches?
The idea of a caffeine headache, is a tricky one. Caffeine’s significance in the context of headaches is uncertain; for some people, it can be a trigger, whilst for others, it can be a remedy. On the other hand, headaches can also result from caffeine withdrawal.
How does caffeine work to relieve headaches?
Caffeine works to relieve headaches in a few ways. For instance, when combined with painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen, the effects of these medications can be increased by up to 40 per cent. Caffeine also lowers stomach acidity (i.e. pH levels) and speeds up gastric mobility, which promotes the absorption of painkillers.
Caffeine is known to enhance one’s overall mood and level of alertness in general. There’s a psychological effect to it as well that shouldn’t be overlooked; I personally also feel better after having a cuppa in the morning.
On the other hand, how can caffeine trigger headaches?
A possible trigger for headaches is dehydration. Caffeine is widely recognised as a mild diuretic, which causes one to visit the toilet more frequently. Hence, if one doesn’t consume enough water when consuming caffeine, it could potentially lead to dehydration.
Caffeine also causes magnesium to be lost in the urine. Magnesium, in cases of chronic pain and migraines, usually has positive influences on pain signal transmission and can therefore be considered as a preventive measure to migraines. Lower levels of magnesium may hence be a contributing factor to the onset of a headache.
Are caffeine headaches directly related to an addiction to caffeine (i.e caffeine withdrawals)?
Caffeine withdrawals can definitely be a trigger for headaches. Some studies have observed a higher frequency of headaches during weekends, when caffeine may be consumed less, which may be linked to caffeine withdrawal.
With daily caffeine consumption, the brain begins to develop a caffeine tolerance—rendering the intake of coffee to be less effective over time with regular doses. A certain level of dependency however, eventually develops when the brain expects these regular doses of caffeine. If that expectation remains unmet, withdrawal syndromes such as headaches, fatigue, trouble concentrating and nausea could occur.
Where possible, try to consume a regular amount of caffeine daily at a regular timing in order to create a routine; one that should be maintained even on weekends.
Caffeine can be found as an ingredient in certain pain relief medication. Instead of drinking coffee, would consuming such medication be able to relieve headaches that are triggered by caffeine withdrawals?
For those considering a medication route, caffeine-containing analgesics are safe and effective in treating headaches and even migraine attacks, but their consumption should be limited to no more than two days during the week to avoid medication overuse headaches: rebound headaches that occur due to an overt use of analgesics for relieving headaches (more than 10-15 days a month).
How can we combat headaches that are directly related to an under or overconsumption of caffeine?
Although, the connection between headaches and caffeine consumption still remains uncertain, the best advice I can give you is to listen to your own body. You know yourself best. If you notice the occurrence of headaches after one too many cups of coffee, try the following methods:
- Gradually reduce your caffeine intake by 25 percent every week
- Be conscious of the amount of caffeine you consume. Aside from the regular suspects of coffee and tea, caffeine is also present in energy drinks and even some medication
- Drink at least 8 glasses of water to prevent dehydration
The required amount of caffeine consumed to relieve a headache varies from individual to individual. Where possible, try to consume a regular amount of caffeine daily at a regular timing in order to create a routine; one that should be maintained even on weekends.
What is an appropriate amount of caffeine to consume in order to avoid severe caffeine withdrawals?
The recommended daily intake of caffeine is no more than two servings of caffeinated beverages, or less than 200mg in a day. Be mindful that caffeine can be found in unassuming sources such as sodas, chocolate, and even some over-the-counter medications, which may add up and pile on to your daily caffeine and calorie intake.
Ultimately, everyone’s tolerance to caffeine is different, so you need to make a conscious effort to understand your body and how it reacts to caffeine.