Does your daily routine involve gulping down several cups of coffee? You’re not alone, of course. Coffee just makes the day go better, right?
But if you’re a habitual coffee drinker, suddenly skipping your beloved beverage might trigger unpleasant caffeine withdrawal symptoms ─ especially the most common symptom, headache pain.
Coffee, of course, is not the only caffeinated culprit that may cause withdrawal headache. Caffeine occurs naturally in tea, dark and milk chocolate, cocoa-based beverages, coffee-flavored products, and cola drinks. It can also be found in energy drinks, in most stay-awake pills, in congestion and pain medications ─ and lately, in caffeinated water! Even “decaf” coffee isn’t totally stimulant-free.
Considering reducing your caffeine intake? Check out these frequently asked questions:
Exactly What is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a bitter substance derived naturally from dozens of plants. It is also a drug, and the most popular one at that. It ranks as the world’s most widely used psychoactive ingredient, although its use is considered a dependency and not an addiction.
Caffeine very effectively lifts your mood, battles fatigue, and keeps you sharp, alert, and focused. (But you already know that!)
An estimated 80-90% of the U.S. population rely on at least one caffeinated beverage per day to give them this boost. In fact, the average American adult consumes 200 mg of caffeine daily, equal to two 5-ounce cups of coffee or four 12-ounce colas.
How Does Caffeine Affect the Body?
If you’re a regular drinker of caffeinated beverages, caffeine goes to work 5 to 15 minutes after you consume a cup. Once in your bloodstream, it rapidly stimulates your central nervous system (brain, nerves, and spinal cord) and is widely distributed throughout your body. It enhances chemicals within the brain that help regulate both motion and emotion.
The result? Elevated mood. Increased alertness. More energy and greater endurance.
But for most consumers of caffeine, its positive effects tend to peak within 30 to 60 minutes. And in just 4 to 6 hours, the benefits of that cup of caffeine significantly diminish, as your body efficiently processes and eliminates the drug.
Because caffeine does not accumulate in our systems, healthy adults suffer no long-term effects from moderate consumption of about four cups per day.
Who Experiences Caffeine Withdrawal?
Remember, caffeine is a drug. Erratic consumption of any caffeinated product – say, drinking coffee at the office but abstaining when the weekend arrives…or sudden fasting before medical testing…or simply quitting cold turkey – may induce some level of caffeine withdrawal.
For most adults, experts recommend limiting daily caffeine consumption to 300 mg a day, or about 3 small cups of regular roasted coffee. But for regular users accustomed to 2 to 4 six-ounce cups a day, even a few-hour delay in caffeine consumption can trigger caffeine withdrawal.
- For most adults, experts recommend limiting daily caffeine consumption to 300 mg a day, or about 3 small cups of regular roasted coffee. But for regular users accustomed to 2 to 4 six-ounce cups a day, even a few-hour delay in caffeine consumption can trigger caffeine withdrawal.
- Studies also indicate that those who consume more than 600 mg (4 to 7 cups) a day are almost certain to experience headache and other withdrawal symptoms when consumption is cut back.
- Of course, even an occasional user might experience a caffeine withdrawal headache after just one or two caffeinated drinks. According to John Hopkins Medicine, dependency can begin after just one small cup of coffee — about 100 milligrams of caffeine — a day. Like any drug, caffeine affects everyone differently, depending on a person’s sensitivity, size and genetics.
How Does a Caffeine Withdrawal Headache Feel?
When caffeine enters your central nervous system, it narrows the blood vessels in your brain and reduces blood flow. One study found that less than three cups of coffee can reduce cerebral blood flow by as much as 27%. Your brain becomes accustomed to the constricted blood vessels and dependent on caffeine’s ability to keep it alert and focused.
But then, if your usual dose of caffeine is delayed or stopped, a rebound occurs:
The blood vessels relax, enlarge, and allow an unexpectedly heavier blood flow to the brain. And a withdrawal headache is underway.
While typically not a serious condition, severe headache from caffeine withdrawal can cause several days of discomfort and pain. What does this headache feel like?
- Caffeine withdrawal headache typically comes on gradually. Pain, throbbing and pressure start behind the eyes, pushing outward from the brain and possibly expanding to the front of the head.
- Level of pain can range from moderate to severe and tends to intensify with physical activity.
- The headache can vary in length or severity and subsides when the brain is able to adjust to the increased flow from the enlarged blood vessels.
The International Headache Society defines a caffeine withdrawal headache in this way:
- It develops within 24 hours after last consuming caffeine in people who consume at least 200 milligrams (mg) per day of caffeine for more than 2 weeks.
- It disappears after 7 consecutive days of no caffeine.
- It improves within 1 hour of consuming 100 mg of caffeine.
Caffeine withdrawal headache also may be accompanied by fatigue or drowsiness; depression, anxiety, or irritability; trouble concentrating; flu-like symptoms; and even hand tremors.
So, if you’re a regular consumer of caffeine, ask yourself these questions to determine if caffeine withdrawal may be causing uncomfortable side effects:
- Have I consumed caffeine in any form every day for the last 2 weeks?
- On a regular daily basis, do I drink 1-2 cups of caffeinated coffee (about 200 mg) or 2-4 cups (about 400 mg) of caffeinated tea…but have suddenly stopped?
- Does my head pain or discomfort decrease after I consume 100 mg of caffeine?
- Does my head pain or discomfort decrease after 7 consecutive days without caffeine?
If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, you may be experiencing caffeine withdrawal.
How Do You Relieve a Caffeine Withdrawal Headache?
Follow these 8 tips to tackle a headache that comes with caffeine withdrawal:
- Drink some caffeine! It may seem counterintuitive, but a temporary way to minimize caffeine withdrawal headache and other symptoms may simply be a few sips of a caffeinated beverage. Studies show most people begin to experience some relief within an hour of consuming 100 mg of caffeine.
- Quit slowly. Quitting caffeine “cold turkey” can shock the body and worsen withdrawal headache symptoms. Instead, cut back caffeine gradually, over a period of 2 to 6 weeks. Some doctors recommend decreasing consumption by around 25% a week, to lessen the risk of withdrawal headache and other discomfort. An online caffeine calculator can help you figure out your daily usage. For example, gradually switch from regular coffee to decaf, green tea, or herbal tea. Begin by alternating the caffeinated and decaf beverages, gradually increasing use of the decaf choices before stopping the caffeinated ones completely.
- Try over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen can help ease withdrawal headache and achy muscles. For adults, 600 mg of ibuprofen, twice a day during days 2 through 5 of withdrawal, may minimize symptoms. And if you choose to discontinue caffeine completely, carefully read labels or talk with your pharmacist to understand the caffeine levels your OTC and prescription meds may contain. Caffeine is often added to medications to help your body absorb them up to 40% more effectively.
- Hydrate. As you gradually reduce the amount of coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks you consume each day, replace them with water. The American Migraine Foundation calls drinking plenty of water good headache hygiene. It’s a healthy way to help flush out caffeine naturally and lessen a caffeine withdrawal headache. In your first few days without caffeine, try substituting warm water with lemon in place of your morning coffee or teThroughout the day, consume as much water as you need to quench your thirst and to produce urine that is light yellow or clear in color.
- Boost your energy naturally. Heighten your energy levels with daily exercise and stress reduction techniques. Consume nutritious food, including fruit and other plant-based options, to help avoid the “crash” that comes from some processed foods.
- Get restful sleep. Combat withdrawal headache and fatigue by avoiding daytime naps and getting the recommended good night’s sleep of 7 to 9 hours per night. Studies show a strong relationship between restful sleep and migraine relief. Don’t exercise close to bedtime. If sleep is difficult in the first few nights of withdrawal, consider chewable melatonin, available over the counter. Taken 40 minutes before bedtime, it may help reset sleep cycles.
- Apply ice. Try a frozen neck wrap to reduce withdrawal headache tension and pain. Ice can constrict blood vessels and slow transmission of pain signals from the brain.
- Apply menthol. Rub a few drops of peppermint essential oil on the forehead or temples. Safe and tolerable, peppermint oil may help numb and reduce withdrawal headache pain.
Note: Be sure to consult a physician for a headache that persists a week after stopping caffeine, or if you experience related dizziness, vision change, confusion, or memory loss.
Take Charge of Your Caffeine Withdrawal Headache
Caffeine is a drug and, in many ways, a paradox. Regular caffeine intake can offer you increased energy, better focus, and a feeling of well-being ─ but caffeine withdrawal is often quite uncomfortable.
Although tapering or quitting caffeine isn’t a dangerous step, it can trigger debilitating caffeine withdrawal headache or migraine, as well as other uncomfortable side effects.
Be sure to pace your withdrawal from caffeine ─ and follow healthy practices (sleep well, eat fresh foods, and drink plenty of water) ─ to minimize or relieve your headache symptoms.
Do you experience head pain or know someone who does? Check out The Mable Blog for insights from medical experts, plus information on the latest in effective migraine treatment.
Is it a headache…or migraine? Take this quiz to find out.