Does Caffeine Cause Migraine? Getting to Know Caffeine’s Varied Effects on Migraine
Caffeine is often cited as a headache trigger, but for some people with migraines, a cup of coffee can offer some relief in the midst of an attack. Still, others who have caffeine frequently can suffer migraine attacks triggered by caffeine withdrawal when they skip their morning cup of joe. Often, the key determining factor is the quantity of caffeine consumed: many over-the-counter migraine and headache medications contain caffeine as a key active ingredient, but it is typically included for its role in aiding the body’s absorption of these medicines rather than as a treatment itself.
Still, the line between how much coffee, tea or soda will relieve a headache versus the quantity that will cause one can vary widely from person to person, and depends on a variety of factors. Read on for tips on how to determine how much caffeine is right for your migraine management plan.
Understanding How Caffeine Affects You
Caffeine is a commonly-cited migraine food trigger, along with alcohol, artificial sweeteners, and MSG, but for some people small doses of caffeine can provide migraine relief. On the other end of the spectrum, people who consume large quantities of caffeine regularly may be at risk for withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit “cold turkey,” and that withdrawal can itself be a migraine trigger. Caffeine’s effects on an individual with migraines also depend on how much water that person drinks between cups. Coffee, tea or caffeinated soda can affect migraine symptoms indirectly by causing dehydration. You should try to drink at least eight, eight-ounce glasses of water per day if you aren’t drinking caffeinated drinks; if you are, try to add a full glass for each cup to offset its dehydrating effects.
Caffeine Effects by Headache Type
While caffeine’s effects can vary based on both individual predispositions and behaviors, there are some known patterns in caffeine’s interaction with certain types of headaches. Doctors recommend that patients with episodic migraine limit their caffeine intake to one or two beverages daily (or 200mg caffeine). Patients with daily headaches should consider avoiding caffeine completely. Daily caffeine intake can also lead to medication overuse headache, otherwise known as “rebound” headaches, so if you rely heavily on migraine medications and are concerned about overuse, consider phasing out your coffee habit first.
How To Determine Your Caffeine Limits
Once you know how much caffeine you’re consuming and where it’s coming from, start to track your caffeine intake alongside your headache frequency. Do you get headaches after lunch, when you often have soda? Try having water instead the next day and see whether or not you have head pain that day. Is caffeine the active ingredient in the pain medication that’s most effective against your headaches? Swap a cup of coffee for your usual medicine and see if it provides the same relief. Do you tend to have headaches on days you skip your morning cup of coffee? You might be experiencing caffeine withdrawal, especially if having caffeine soon after provides relief.
Remember to be on the lookout for caffeine in unexpected places, including some teas, chocolate, non-cola sodas, and even decaf coffee. Check the ingredients in any medications you take. Also, consider that caffeine levels can vary widely between different types of coffee: a large McDonald’s brew contains 133mg of caffeine, while a venti at Starbucks has roughly 415mg of caffeine.
Reducing Caffeine Reliance
If you find your headaches are being triggered by caffeine withdrawal, don’t try to quit cold turkey: that’s a surefire recipe for more head pain. Reduce caffeine intake slowly, by 25% each week, to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Consider using an online caffeine calculator or talking to your doctor to figure out your daily caffeine use, then do the math to make sure you are scaling back safely. If you are making any changes in your behaviors regarding caffeine, it’s generally a good idea to drink more water to help mitigate caffeine’s effects—and simply because drinking enough water is part of practicing good headache hygiene.
The better you understand how the things you eat and drink affect your migraine, the more changes you can make to help reduce your headache attacks. Caffeine is one of many components in your diet that can influence your migraine: Download our free Meal Planning Toolkit to easily track your habits and learn how they influence your symptoms. Then, share your findings with a headache specialist to get a treatment plan designed just for you. Click here to find a nearby headache specialist today.
Reviewed for accuracy by the American Migraine Foundation’s subject matter experts, headache specialists and medical advisers with deep knowledge and training in headache medicine. Click here to read about our editorial board members.