Reviewed by Dr. Michael Kessler, DC
Coffee and migraines couldn’t be at further ends of the spectrum in terms of enjoyment. The former is beloved the world over for its signature richness and energy-boosting ability to help usher in a new day. The latter can be so severe and debilitating that it effectively ruins a person’s day. So, many are unlikely to ask themselves: Is my coffee causing migraines?
Coffee, caffeine, and headaches—both tension and migraine—have an interesting relationship. Some research indicates that if you drink too many caffeine-filled beverages like coffee, your risk for a migraine goes up. Powerful headaches may also be a symptom of caffeine withdrawal.
On the other hand, caffeine is an ingredient in several over-the-counter pain medicines, indicating that coffee may also work to quell headache pain.
If you suffer from migraines, you will probably do anything to avoid them. The constant pounding and other symptoms like nausea, vision trouble, and sensitivity to light make doing almost anything impossible. Let’s see if coffee might be a helper or hindrance to your condition.
Can Too Much Coffee Cause Migraines?
A brand-new study published in early August examined the potential coffee-migraine trigger. Researchers studied patients who suffered episodic migraines and had them track their consumption of caffeinated beverages. After about six weeks of study, they concluded there might be a dose-dependent relationship between migraines and caffeine.
They noted that on days where individuals consumed three or more caffeinated beverages, they had a higher risk of migraine later in the day. The same association was not seen in people who had one or two caffeine drinks, except for one caveat: If the person did not normally consume caffeine, one or two drinks might lead to a headache.
Because there is a wide variation in dosing among caffeinated beverages, they defined the serving sizes as:
- 8 ounces/1 cup of caffeinated coffee
- 6 ounces of tea
- A 12-ounce can of soda
- 2 ounces of energy drink
The challenge lies in identifying how much caffeine may induce future headaches after drinking coffee.
The options listed above, for example, can range from 25 to 150 milligrams (mg) of caffeine per serving. The “safe for most people” upper daily limit of caffeine is about 400 mg per day, and the number of beverages to hit that amount would vary based on what you’re drinking and, potentially, how much you would normally drink.
Even though the study, which is published in The American Journal of Medicine, established a link between three-plus caffeinated beverages and a higher risk of migraine later in the day, it can not definitively say that these beverages—or caffeine—themselves are the culprit.
Migraine headaches are multi-factorial; however, caffeine may amplify other factors in some people. For instance, a high caffeine intake may enhance migraine risk factors like anxiety and poor sleep. So will you get a headache after drinking coffee? Probably not, but it really depends how much you drink and when.
Migraine vs. Caffeine Withdrawal
Another way that caffeine may indirectly lead to an intense headache—or what feels like a migraine—is through withdrawal. For example, if you’ve been drinking two cups of coffee (or more) per day for the last number of months or years and stop cold turkey, you’ll likely feel it one way or another. One effect could be severe headaches, as your body gets used to going without something it’s grown accustomed to having.
When caffeine is consumed, it activates adenosine receptors, which is what staves off drowsiness and keeps you alert. As you consume caffeine more frequently, you may require more of it to get the same effect as tolerance builds. Cutting off that supply—which may have turned into a dependence—can lead to withdrawal.
If you’ve recently stopped drinking coffee cold turkey and have been experiencing extremely painful headaches (or other symptoms of withdrawal) there are a couple of options. The first is to stick it out—you should be over it within a few days. The second is to slowly wean yourself off coffee by lowering consumption daily.
Can Coffee—Caffeine—Also Relieve Your Migraine?
Interestingly enough, there is also evidence that caffeine helps relieve headaches. Of course, migraines aren’t your typical headache, so traditional forms of relief might not always work.
As mentioned earlier, there is caffeine in most over-the-counter painkillers. This is based on research indicating that caffeine can relieve headaches. There are a number of reviews and studies showing that moderate caffeine intake can boost the efficacy of painkillers, as well as offer relief to both tension and migraine headaches.
A 2017 review published in The Journal of Headache and Pain found that, depending on dosing and individual factors, caffeine may help prevent or treat migraine headaches.
Caffeine may offer pain relief by acting as a vasoconstrictor—making blood vessels smaller. Before and during headaches, blood vessels get bigger to allow more blood flow to the region, and that can result in pain and inflammation.
Limiting blood flow to the region may be just one way that caffeine helps prevent and relieve headaches. Once again, this would be dose- and time-dependent. Drinking a coffee to treat a nighttime headache, for example, is probably not a good idea: it will keep you up and likely lead to discomfort the following day (from lack of sleep).
5 Natural Remedies for Migraines
There is a very complex relationship between migraine and coffee. Migraine cures, at this point, don’t really exist. According to the National Institutes of Health, exactly why they occur, and exactly what can be done to prevent and treat them, is misunderstood. That said, some treatments have been observed to work in certain individuals. These treatments include both natural and pharmaceutical options.
The following natural options might help you deal with the migraine headaches, whether by preventing them or reducing the duration or symptom strength.
Research has indicated that acupressure may be a useful form of alterative therapy for people suffering from chronic headaches, including migraines. Acupressure is the practice of applying pressure to various points on the body with the goal of relieving tension and pain.
For migraine, research has shown that pressure on the PC6 acupoint, located three fingers up from the base of the wrist inside the arm, can help ease migraine symptoms.
2. Dietary Habits
Food can play a big role in migraine risk and a number of items are identified as potential triggers. We’ve examined how caffeine—or too much caffeine—may promote migraines, so monitoring intake is recommended.
Other items to pay attention to include:
- Food with nitrates (processed meats)
- Cheese with tyramine (blue, feta, cheddar, parmesan, Swiss)
- Alcohol (particularly red wine)
- Processed foods
- Pickled foods
- Dairy products
3. Essential Oils
There is some evidence that the scent of lavender essential oil may improve migraine symptoms. Applying diluted lavender oil to the temples or inhaling it through a diffuser may be of some benefit during a migraine headache.
Peppermint oil is also used to treat migraine headaches. It can be blended with a carrier oil for a soothing massage, or added to a nice warm bath to help ease tension throughout your body.
Some research indicates ginger may offer some relief from migraine headaches. One study showed ginger powder was able to reduce the power and duration of migraine symptoms with few side effects.
5. Stress Management
Stress and anxiety may trigger migraine headaches, so finding effective stress-management techniques may be effective for limiting frequency. Exercise, meditation, yoga, tai chi, journaling, and massage may all help lessen stress.
Coffee and Headaches: An Interesting, Dose-Dependent Relationship
There’s no doubt that coffee and migraines have an interesting and multifaceted relationship. It seems that who you are and how much you drink could be the difference in whether caffeine is aiding or fighting your likelihood of migraines.
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