9 a.m. The office is buzzing. A perky coworker drops by your desk and you find yourself muttering, “Don’t talk to me yet, I haven’t had my coffee.”
4 p.m. The office is slowing down a bit. Another hour or so ago and you decide a coffee and a piece of chocolate would be the perfect thing to get you through the rest of the day.
Half an hour later, the same perky co-worker drops by your desk and you find yourself muttering, “Sorry, I think that caffeine gave me a headache.”
Do you feel like you have a tricky relationship to caffeine? Sometimes you need it, other times it gets you down?
Let’s break down some of what we know about our precious—and fickle—cups of Joe.
Caffeine as a Headache Reliever
As a pain reliever, caffeine can help reduce inflammation that leads to pain. It can act as a headache remedy, and that’s why you’ll find it in many pain medications. It can work well enough that you may not even need a pill, and you can just indulge in a caffeinated drink. Caffeine can also help the body absorb medication, so if taken with a pain reliever, it may provide relief quicker. However, by not regularly mixing it with over-the-counter pain relievers, you can reduce the risk of post-relief pain.
That’s where things can get tricky. Caffeine can help the pain go away, but it can also trigger a painful after-effect.
Caffeine “causing” headaches
The word “causing” has been put in quotes because it needs to be put into the right context. Caffeine isn’t necessarily known for triggering headaches as much as resulting in pain due to an over-dependence on it.
Caffeine naturally occurs in plants and has become the most widely used neuro-stimulant in the world.1 That’s a fancy way of saying it heightens the activity of the nervous system. It is also a well-known vaso-constrictor, meaning it causes the blood vessels to temporarily narrow. While a hot cup of coffee (or tea, or a caffeinated soft drink) may taste good and produce in us a feeling of pleasure, those physical effects just listed are quite real and measurable. They also tend to produce—like other naturally occurring or synthetic drugs—dependence.
Over time, you can drink enough caffeine that your body becomes used to its presence. On a day where you don’t have much of it in your system, you could experience a withdrawal headache.
The Caffeine Withdrawal Headache (and Other Symptoms)
A caffeine withdrawal headache happens when a body used to getting that vaso-constricting, neuro-stimulating kick is denied it. The amount of caffeine consumption required for this to happen can vary from person to person, as can the effect of caffeine on wakefulness and the ability to get a good night of sleep. We all know those people who can’t have any caffeine of any kind after about noon or they’ll lose the whole night. And we all know those people who can fall asleep with a cup of coffee in their hand.
Caffeine withdrawal can manifest in several ways. Here are a few of the most frequent:
The Headache. This usually starts behind the eyes and moves up. If you’re trying to kick the joe, don’t worry – no lasting problems are known from this kind of headache.
Irritability. This is a biggee, as evidenced in our (only partly) fictional recreation of a typical office conversation. If you have irritability as a result of caffeine deficiency, it’s on you: give your co-worker a break. On the other hand, perky co-worker, if your cubicle-mate says he hasn’t had his caffeine, do yourself a favor and back off.
Brain fog, dizziness, etc. Because caffeine is a neurostimulator, it makes sense that the brain might get foggy, tired, or even slightly dizzy if it hasn’t had the kick it’s gotten accustomed to.
Irregular heartbeats. This is the scariest symptom of withdrawal from caffeine. Your dilating blood vessels may cause a slight change in your normal heart rhythm, even to the point where you feel palpitations. This is okay and normal, but it’s always best to err on the cautious side if the feeling that heart is somehow off is strong.
One piece of good news for the caffeine-addicted in our midst: other than some dyspepsia in the stomach cause by the acid found in coffee, caffeine has not been linked to any serious health problems. Actually, the opposite has been seen: in the many, many studies done on the effects of caffeine in the human body, most studies have shown only positive effects in concentration and an overall lowered blood pressure. Some researchers even suspect it has a beneficial effect on fighting cancer, though more research must be done in that area.
- Addicott MA. Hum Brain Mapp. 2009 Oct; 30(10): 3102–3114.