Understanding the Connection Between Caffeine and Headaches

Explore This Interesting and Paradoxical Link

Caffeine: Friend or Foe?
Caffeine: Friend or Foe?. Sharon Pruitt & Eyeem/Getty Images

Caffeine is a subject that often naturally comes up when talking about headaches, mostly because caffeine withdrawal is a common headache trigger.

How exactly does caffeine relate to headaches, and should you be using caffeine or working to cut it out of your life to avoid your headaches?

What Is Caffeine?

Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance, first isolated from coffee. It's present in a number of other plants, which means it also finds its way into a number of common foods and drinks.

Caffeine is considered a psychoactive stimulant drug -- a substance that affects the central nervous system, causing an increase in alertness and awareness.

What Foods and Drinks Contain the Most Caffeine?:

Caffeine is a component of many foods and beverages, notably coffee and tea. It's added to many soft drinks and sports/energy drinks as well. Chocolate is another source of caffeine, although the stimulant is usually in lower concentrations than what's found in coffee, espresso, and tea.

How Do Caffeine and Headaches Relate Exactly?:

If you consume caffeine on a regular basis and then attempt to eliminate it from your diet, you are in danger of developing caffeine withdrawal. One of the symptoms of withdrawal is a headache. A caffeine withdrawal headache may come in many forms, but it's commonly described as coming on slowly, affecting the entire head, and throbbing. It also tends to worsen with any sort of physical activity.

Headache severity varies from person to person, but caffeine withdrawal headaches can be quite painful and debilitating.

Why Do Some Headache Remedies Contain Caffeine?

There is some evidence to suggest that small doses of caffeine may actually increase the absorption of other medicines, making them a bit more effective in treating headaches.

Excedrin and Fioricet are two headache relievers that contain caffeine.

The caveat is that while not scientifically proven, many experts believe that caffeine-containing headache medications can also cause ca caffeine withdrawal headache, if taken frequently enough -- quite a paradox, but makes sense if you think about it.

What Should I Do If I Get Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms?

Along with headaches, other symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include fatigue, sleepiness or drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, depression or anxiety, and flu-like symptoms. If you suspect that symptoms such as these are being caused by caffeine withdrawal, it's best to contact your healthcare provider. If you feel you need to cut back on caffeine in your diet, he or she can help you do so in a safe and effective manner.

The Bottom Line

The fact that caffeine carries both benefits and downsides for your health make it an interesting, controversial drug. This is why it's ideal to take an individualized approach when it comes to caffeine intake -- do what is best for you based on your health needs.

Discussing this with your doctor is a good place to start.

Likewise, if you decide to cut back on your caffeine intake or eliminate caffeine altogether, how you go about this also requires a unique approach.  For instance, you may be better suited to taper your caffeine over a couple week period, as opposed to an immediate abstinence or vice versa. 

Sources:

Graham A.W., Schultz T.K., Mayo-Smith M.F., Ries R.K. & Wilford, B.B. (eds.) “Caffeine pharmacology and clinical effects.” Principles of Addiction Medicine, Third Edition (pp. 193-224). Chevy Chase, MD: American Society of Addiction.

Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.

Edited by Dr. Colleen Doherty May 22nd 2016. 

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