POV: You’re halfway through your morning when you've stumbled through coffee-less after realising you're fresh out of K-Cups, and you're already ready to crawl right back into bed due to your pounding headache. Alternative POV: You threw back one too many espresso shots to prepare for a should-have-been-an-email meeting, and now you have a raging headache thanks to the rush of caffeine. Welcome to the morning headache life, friends! A club truly no one wants to be a part of!
Even if you’re someone who deals with frequent migraines, that regular Starbucks run may be affecting more than your bank account. Too much, or too little, caffeine can make your migraines way worse—and that's a fact. But why do caffeine headaches even exist in the first place? And is there anything you can eat/drink/meditate on to prevent them from happening? Don't worry, we’re about to answer all of those questions and more, with advice from two experts: neurologist and migraine specialist Sara Crystal, MD, the Medical Director for Cove; and Chrissy Williams, MS, RD, LDN, a functional dietitian.
Read on to learn why caffeine headaches happen, and how to effectively deal 'em (without swearing off that cup o' joe forever, promise). Peace out, pounding head pain!
What’s a caffeine headache anyway, and why do I have one?
Ever wonder WTF is really going on in your cranium when a headache kicks in? (You know, besides searing pain and the desire to remain in the fetal position for days on end.) According to the Mayo Clinic, there's a lot going on behind the scenes here: Basically, a headache occurs when there's an increase in blood flow to the brain. That increased blood flow puts pressure on your nerves, which leads to *that* dreaded pain feeling.
Now, it may sound counterintuitive, but just the right amount of caffeine can sometimes help stave off headaches because caffeine naturally narrows your blood vessels for a short amount of time. This allows the blood vessels in your lil cute noggin to relieve some of that blood flow and pressure. That's why caffeine is usually an active ingredient in some migraine relief meds, like Excedrin. "Caffeine can relieve headaches by its own analgesic, or alleviating, effects, and by enhancing the analgesic effects of aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen," explains Dr Crystal. (FWIW, migraines are defined as moderate-to-severe pounding headaches with throbbing, light sensitivity, and nausea, that happen multiple times and significantly interfere with your day.)
Other times, though, consuming too much caffeine can ultimately screw you over. "Caffeine withdrawal is a known trigger for migraine and other headache types, and caffeine itself may trigger attacks," Dr Crystal says. Essentially, your body gets so used to having a certain amount of caffeine, that when you stop taking in as much, the blood flow rushes right back to the brain and can cause that dreaded pressure and pain. According to the Mayo Clinic, those withdrawal headaches can last for weeks at a time (yikes).
It's also possible to get what's called a "rebound headache" from medication overuse if your headache meds have caffeine in them, says Dr Crystal. "Caffeine is prone to dependency, and rebound headaches occur when you consume too much caffeine, subsequently experiencing withdrawal," she explains. Keep on scrolling for how to manage your coffee/tea/energy-drink intake to make sure you avoid those dreaded rebound headaches.
How to get rid of a caffeine headache
The first thing to do to help deal with an awful caffeine headache? Drink *tons* of water. Dehydration, especially from caffeinated drinks, can make headaches worse, so your daily goal should be drinking half your body weight in ounces of water, suggests Williams. Another possible remedy is peppermint (a nice cup of peppermint tea is an option), which has been shown to decrease tension headaches, says Williams. Also, don't skip meals, even if the pounding in your head is making you a lil queasy, because that'll make your dehydration and headache drain even worse. "Eating throughout the day supports your adrenal glands and natural circadian rhythm," adds Williams, noting that imbalances in your blood sugar can make a headache worse.
Now, we know what you're probably wondering: Is it safe to have your regular cuppa coffee if you're coming off of a headache or migraine? While it might seem like the move would be to never drink coffee again after one of these killer headaches, that's not your best bet. Williams suggests cutting back on your caffeine intake slooowly, tapering it off little by little over time to allow your body time to adjust to less and less caffeine. The magic number to eventually aspire to is 200 milligrams of caffeine a day or less, according to Dr Crystal (FYI, that’s less than a Starbucks venti).
It's smart to reduce your caffeine intake over time so that you can decrease your overall dependency on it, particularly if you have frequent migraines, Dr Crystal notes. That way, a little bit of caffeine can go a lot farther, and be more effective in enhancing your painkillers. Pro tip: No matter how bad your headache is, don't go over the dosage of your painkillers, especially if they contain caffeine, because your headache will just keep on, well, headaching.
Let's make sure these don't happen again, k?
The best way to make sure your body doesn't run solely on caffeine is to preserve your ~natural energy~ to the best of your abilities. According to Williams, the following habits certainly help:
- Clock some quality zzz's. As you prepare to wind down, reduce that blue light exposure and stop the TikTok scroll at least a half hour before bed. Keeping the device light to a minimum helps you hit that goal of a solid seven to nine hours of sleep.
- Start your day with a jolt of sunlight. There's nothing better than honest-to-goodness sunlight (a sun lamp is also wonderful <3) to help you wake up on the right side of the bed. You can also jump-start your energy by chugging eight ounces of water and scheduling a quick a.m. walk before powering up your laptop. Get those steps in!
- Give your brain an actual break. Stress is a major headache and migraine trigger, so adopt a yoga/meditation/breathwork routine ASAP to help manage your stress levels throughout the day. Who needs a pricey latte when you can recharge with a free meditation, amirite?