Caffeine and Migraines: What Researchers Have to Say
I first noticed the connection between caffeine and my headaches while I was out driving on weekends.
There is a coffee shop I sometimes like to stop in at, and I noticed that on days when my headaches were bad, I would sometimes start feeling better at the coffee shop, to the point where I wouldn’t even need to take any Ibuprofen.
The coffee shop also doubles as a bookstore, and for some time, I chalked it up to “magical bookstore effect” before it finally clicked one day: it was the coffee that was making me feel better, not the environment.
After I made that connection, I realized that even in the very worst days of my migraines, way back in the beginning when almost nothing made the slightest difference, coffee had an effect.
Sometimes I would go out to eat with my friend back in those days, and I noticed that during dinner, I would feel marginally less miserable.
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We thought it had something to do with eating at the time. But actually, that was right around when I started drinking coffee for the first time in my life, and I only had it when we went out to eat.
So even then during those terrible days, caffeine was powerful enough to at least make a tiny dent in my headaches.
Caffeine and Migraines Have a Complex Relationship
Caffeine and headaches can be a confusing topic, because chances are good you have heard that caffeine helps and hurts when it comes to migraines.
Both are true, actually. Caffeine has the potential to reduce your head pain significantly. But if you end up experiencing rebound headaches, it could make your problems worse.
Caffeine Can Help Migraines (and Tension Headaches)
First, let’s talk about the benefits of caffeine for head pain. Caffeine is an anti-inflammatory agent, which is why it does such a great job reducing the pain associated with both migraines and tension headaches.
There are studies which demonstrate the effectiveness of caffeine as a treatment for headaches:
- This large study looked at the effects of caffeine, aspirin, and acetaminophen. It actually incorporated three double-blind, randomized, single-dose, parallel-group, placebo-controlled studies. 1,357 patients enrolled in the study, with 1,250 taking the study medication. Researchers concluded, “The nonprescription combination of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine was highly effective for the treatment of migraine headache pain as well as for alleviating the nausea, photophobia, phonophobia, and functional disability associated with migraine attacks.”
- Another large study examined the effectiveness of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine (AAC) vs. Ibuprofen for treating acute migraine. This study was also double blind, parallel-group, single-dose, randomized and placebo-controlled. The placebo group had 220 patients, the Ibuprofen group had 666 patients, and the AAC group had 669 patients. The conclusion of the research was, “AAC and IB are safe, cost-effective treatments for migraine; AAC provides significantly superior efficacy and speed of onset compared with IB.”
So you can see that the results are there. Additionally, WebMD reports that taking caffeine with another medication can make that pain reliever up to 40% more effective. For this reason, there are some pain relievers on the market which include caffeine as part of their formula.
Incidentally, if you happen to suffer from a rare type of headache known as a “hypnic headache,” caffeine is known to be particularly effective in treating it. If you take caffeine on days when you are suffering from headaches, especially if you can catch them early, you may be able to significantly reduce the amount of pain medications you are using.
There are some days I even find that drinking a cup of coffee is more effective on its own than taking a dose of medicine.
… But Caffeine Can Also Cause Rebound Headaches
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There is a dark side to the relationship between caffeine and headaches, however, and that is when caffeine overuse starts spawning what are known as “rebound headaches.”
I have written a comprehensive post on rebound headaches, which I suggest you check out. Basically, if you take too much caffeine, you can start to develop a dependency on it. If that happens, you will experience headaches anytime you go into withdrawal. This will force you to take more caffeine to treat the rebound pain, and then your dependency will get even worse, and so on.
Basically, it’s a vicious cycle, and you can often end up feeling a lot worse than you did before you started using the caffeine, because you are dealing with the migraines you started out with and the rebound headaches.
We have all known that person who literally could not get through his or her day without one or more cups of coffee. Quite often that person is not exaggerating. Without the coffee, he or she will be in pain throughout the day.
Don’t let that person be you. Use caffeine to treat your headaches if it helps, but do so with care.
It is important to note that it does not necessarily take excessive amounts of caffeine to product dependency and withdrawal cycles.
Even if you just have a cup of coffee every day, that can do it, because you are drinking it with such regularity.
So I suggest that you use caffeine on an as-needed basis, and that you consider alternating it with medications you are already using.
This should prevent your body from developing a dependency, which in turn should reduce your chances of developing rebound headaches and other nasty withdrawal symptoms.
Sources of Caffeine To Try
So now that you know how caffeine can help your migraines and tension headaches, you may be wondering how you can incorporate more caffeine into your life. Following are a few ideas.
The most obvious source of caffeine to use to treat your migraines is of course coffee—and it is one of the best. The Mayo Clinic reports that a single 8-ounce cup of coffee contains anywhere from 95-165 mg of caffeine. A single 8-ounce cup of mocha or latte contains around 63-126 mg of caffeine. 1 ounce of espresso contains 47-64 mg of caffeine.
As far as beverages go, you really can’t beat coffee for packing a solid punch against a migraine or tension headache. In my experience, it is fast-acting as well. I often feel a slight improvement within just a few minutes of starting to drink a cup of coffee.
I often don’t even finish a full cup, and the improvement is significant by the time I decide I’m done. Sometimes it is enough to give me a few hours of relief; now and again, the headache goes away entirely and doesn’t return.
Of course, if you are going to be drinking a ton of coffee, you do not want to go broke doing it. The best way to save money is to brew your own coffee using a French press. I can give this French press a strong recommendation. I have been using it for years now, and it is awesome. It is ridiculously easy to use, is made out of sturdy materials, and produces delicious coffee. You can also use it to make tea!
Coffee is not the only great beverage to drink if you want more caffeine. Tea is another excellent choice. According to the Mayo Clinic, a single 8-ounce cup of brewed black coffee has 25-48 mg of caffeine, while a single 8-ounce cup of green tea contains 25-29 mg of caffeine. That is not as much as coffee obviously, but it is still a significant dose, and may be all you need to start feeling better.
Another option is Yerba Mate (I use this brand). Yerba mate is a delicious, invigorating tea which is indigenous to South America. Apparently there is some scientific confusion as to whether Yerba Mate contains caffeine or some similar stimulant—read more about that at the link I just shared. Suffice to say, whatever that stimulant is, strongly brewed Yerba Mate may contain as much as 65 - 135 mg of it.
You May Also Enjoy: 9 Steps for Instant Relief from Tension Headaches
Does it work? I can say that I do seem to notice a reduction in head pain while drinking mate, so perhaps it is caffeine after all. I do not seem to be particularly prone to the placebo effect when it comes to managing head pain. I have also noticed it seems to help my mind focus, which is nice while working.
3. AAC Medications
While caffeinated beverages like teas and coffees are great, maybe you are looking for something you can carry in your purse or your pocket, in which case we can consider a medication like Equate.
Equate Extra Strength Headache Relief contains acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine—the same formula which the researchers tested against Ibuprofen in the study I shared earlier and concluded was superior. You can grab a twin pack of this stuff for $10-$20 online. That is 200 caplets in all.
Another version is Excedrin Migraine Pain Relief. The price is similar, and you are looking at the same basic formula.
Yes, you read that right—I am recommending Midol, that medication that you probably only associate with menstrual cycles. And I am suggesting it as an option whether you are male or female. It is basically a variation on a theme here. It contains acetaminophen, caffeine, and pyrilamine maleate (an antihistamine). The only thing that bothers me about this formula is the antihistamine, which is not really necessary—but Midol certainly does a great job alleviating headaches.
5. Caffeine Pills
Another option is to simply buy caffeine pills. If you go this route, just be aware that many caffeine pills contain significantly higher doses than what you would find in a product like Excedrin, Equate, or Midol. One pill may contain as much caffeine as a full cup of coffee—or more.
Here are a couple of highly rated products to consider:
- Genius Caffeine: These are extended release micro-encapsulated caffeine pills with more than 370 customer reviews online and an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. Each capsule contains 167 mg of caffeine. The other ingredients are very minimal, so this looks like a relatively pure product.
- Bulksupplements Pure Caffeine Capsules: These capsules are even more popular—more than 750 buyers have given them an average rating of 4.5 stars. This is also a fairly pure product, containing no other ingredients than the gelatine capsule and the caffeine itself. The 200 mg dose is quite hefty though, so only use this product if your body can handle it.
7. Energy Drinks
As to energy drinks, they may be hit or miss, so you should read the full ingredients of any energy drink very carefully before you decide to use it on a regular basis.
Some energy drinks are okay, but many are loaded with additives and unhealthy stimulants and should be avoided.
If you are looking for an example of an energy drink mix which isn’t full of unwanted additives, you might consider Evil Energy. It isn’t cheap—24 packets of this drink mix costs $48, but it is highly rated and popular, with more than 40 buyers giving it an average rating of 4.5 stars.
Each packet contains 300 mg of caffeine along with natural healthy ingredients like yerba mate, spirulina, green tea leaf extract, and CoQ10.
Because these packets contain a lot of caffeine, I recommend simply using half a packet at a time. This will stretch your dollar and provide you with a more reasonable dose.
You know what though? Even with a “healthier” option like this one which contains natural ingredients, I still don’t recommend using energy drinks too often.
These may be “healthy” stimulants, but loading up on too many at a time can still be rough on your system.
Caffeine by itself is already pretty intense after all!
Another significant source of caffeine is soda. Soda I would avoid outright in most cases, because sodas which contain caffeine also tend to contain sugar and other additives in high amounts, none of which you want. That said, there are exceptions!
Zevia Cola for example contains 45 mg of caffeine, and is sweetened with stevia leaf extract instead of sugar or artificial sweeteners. Several other flavours of Zevia contain caffeine as well.
I personally am a big fan of Zevia sodas and highly recommend them. They are not as overbearingly sweet as traditional sodas which are sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners.
Caffeine for Migraines Action Tips
Now you know all about how caffeine can potentially help you manage your migraines! Let’s go over some action tips quickly to review what we have learned:
- You can use caffeine to treat not only migraines, but tension headaches and some other types of headaches as well.
- If you take caffeine with another medication, you can increase its effectiveness by up to 40%.
- Taking too much caffeine too often can lead to dependency, which can cause rebound headaches, so be moderate with your doses.
- Try not to take caffeine every single day. If you do this, even in small amounts, it can still lead to the dependency cycle described above. It is better to save caffeine for when you need it most.
- Perhaps the simplest, most reliable way to get caffeine is through drinking coffee or tea. It is easy to purchase these as pure, unadulterated products, and the doses are easy to control as well.
- Other options for getting caffeine include caffeine pills, medications which contain caffeine, energy drinks, and sodas. Cocoa contains some caffeine as well.
Conclusion: In Moderation, Caffeine Makes a Great Antidote to Migraines and Tension Headaches
Caffeine has long had a somewhat controversial reputation, and where headaches are concerned, its role is a complicated one. But so long as you are using it in moderation and you are careful not to overdo it, it can act as a powerful natural painkiller when you need it the most.