Caffeine is the most popular drug in the world. It can be found in many foods and beverages, including coffee, tea, and soft drinks. Caffeine is highly regarded and socially accepted in modern culture, which often leads to excess consumption. In fact, the common reference for the first cup of coffee of the day as “a much-needed fix” can mask a possible caffeine addiction and dependency on caffeine’s stimulating effect.
As with other drugs, caffeine affects people differently depending on how much and how often they use. If you take the recommended amount of caffeine in moderation, it will likely stimulate your nervous system and boost your productivity without any adverse effects. But if you consume excess caffeine, the effect could be negative, usually with sedation and a rebound headache.
Excess caffeine consumption is known to cause a number of physical, mental, and psychological effects, with the most characteristic one being the caffeine headache. The headache originates from behind the eyes and gradually spread to the front of the forehead as it intensifies, becoming quite debilitating.
In some cases, the caffeine-induced headache can trigger a migraine; though for most people, it is moderately painful with varied severity depending on the cause.
Causes of a caffeine headache
There are several different likely causes of a caffeine headache, including:
1. Caffeine withdrawal
This is the biggest cause of caffeine headaches, such that even a small decline of 50 – 100 mg in your daily caffeine intake can result in a mild headache.
Caffeine withdrawal headaches can arise if you miss your daily dose, like skipping a cup of coffee in the morning; consume less than you usually do, like when cutting back or switching to decaf; or when detoxing from caffeine.
Caffeine withdrawal can happen easily for people who have a fairly low caffeine tolerance, and unknowingly reduce their usual sources of the drug. In most instances, the person is not even aware that they’re addicted to caffeine, yet caffeine withdrawal headaches affect many people who routinely drink a cup of coffee in the morning, snack on a chocolate bar in the mid-afternoon, and then take another cup or two of coffee in the evening.
You can gradually become addicted to caffeine, consuming more and more over time.
The signs of addiction are not obvious, but when you start consuming about 500 mg of caffeine per day for a minimum of two weeks, and your body becomes accustomed to that level of caffeine intake, any time the expected caffeine stimulation does not occur, like when cutting back or just in a position where you cannot, you may experience unpleasant side effects, including a caffeine withdrawal headache.
Withdrawal headaches can be very severe for people who quit caffeine ‘cold turkey’, and are usually accompanied by other equally debilitating symptoms.
2. Caffeine overdose
People who consume excess caffeine in a limited amount of time tend to experience a headache as a symptom for caffeine overdose.
The first dose of caffeine usually has a positive effect in the form of decreased drowsiness and fatigue, increased mental alertness, and improved muscle coordination. But high caffeine intake, or for those with caffeine sensitivity, can lead to many undesirable effects, such as:
- Loud heart contractions
- Increased heart rate
- Flushed face
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Diarrhea and heartburn
- Anxiety and depression
- Sleep problems and irritability
- Muscle tremors and twitches
Headaches resulting from caffeine overuse are referred to as rebound headaches. Vulnerability to caffeine rebound depends on two factors:
First is the person’s sensitivity to caffeine – some people can handle or tolerate more caffeine than others without suffering adverse effects
Second is a high daily total caffeine intake – this includes caffeine consumption from all sources, including candy (chocolate), drugs (painkillers), drinks (coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks), food (pastry and cereal), and yerba mate
Although the excess caffeine causes a headache by interfering with the balance of epinephrine and adenosine in the brain, the primary reason for the pain is because of the interruption of your usual daily caffeine intake from whatever sources.
3. Varied caffeine consumption
People who take caffeine occasionally – in tea, coffee, soft drink, or some other source – tend to suffer more caffeine-induced headaches compared to those who have a more regular and steady caffeine intake.
4. Caffeine allergy
There are people who are allergic to caffeine because they are unable to metabolize it as well as others.
The symptoms of an allergic reaction to caffeine usually begin after consuming light-to-moderate amounts of caffeine through soda, tea, coffee, or energy drinks.
The allergic reactions to caffeine are similar to those of caffeine withdrawal, and include: headaches or migraines; skin problems such as eczema, acne, rashes, and severe itching; anxiety and panic attacks; inability to focus; bad mood and irritability; tongue, throat, and glands swelling; dizziness; fatigue; cold sweats; flu-like symptoms; hallucinations; and depression, among others.
These symptoms usually arise due to the buildup of caffeine in the body rather than being digested properly. If these symptoms arise, you should stop consuming caffeine immediately, and determine whether the symptoms were caused by caffeine.
They should begin to subside with time, as the caffeine in the body is eliminated.
5. Caffeine sensitivity
Caffeine sensitivity varies from person to person, depending on the efficiency of your body to process and metabolize caffeine.
Unlike caffeine tolerance, which described the way your body responds to caffeine intake over time, sensitivity looks at the amount that can be safely consumed every day without any negative effects.
It requires an understanding of your habits to determine the degree to which a certain amount of caffeine will affect you.
There are three levels of caffeine sensitivity depending on genetic makeup:
Hypersensitivity to caffeine: People in this category react to very small amounts of caffeine, even as low as 100 mg due to very slow metabolism. When they consume beyond a certain amount, they experience overdose symptoms such as jitters, increased heartbeat, and insomnia.
Normal sensitivity to caffeine: People in this category can safely consume between 200 – 400 mg of caffeine per day without any negative effects. Most people fall into this category.
Hypersensitive to caffeine – An estimated 10 percent of the population can safely consume over 500 mg of caffeine per day with absolutely no adverse effect. These people can consume coffee just before going to bed and still enjoy a good night’s sleep.
Although there are three categories of caffeine sensitivity, they are not clear-cut. So, you need to identify your own response to different amounts of caffeine to avoid headaches from either withdrawal or excess consumption.
How to get rid of a caffeine headache
Solution #1: Take more caffeine
There are different ways to remedy a caffeine-induced headache depending on the cause. For instance, a caffeine withdrawal headache can be cured by simply consuming more caffeine.
As soon as you start to experience some tightness behind the eyes, you should assess your recent caffeine consumption to determine how much you should take to manage the withdrawal.
Solution #2: Take pain relievers
If you’re purposely detoxing from caffeine, are sensitive to caffeine, or have consumed excess caffeine, you should consider taking pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen as directed by a physician.
You can also take pain relievers that contain caffeine, such as Excedrin, Anacin, and Midol, among others.
These analgesic medications are believed to work 40 percent faster and more effectively because the caffeine boosts their absorption through the gut lining and obstructs the adenosine (pain) receptors in the brain.
The efficiency of these prescription and over-the-counter headache medications means that you don’t have to rely on many drugs to control your caffeine-induced headache. This reduces the risk of addictive usage and any drug side effects.
Caffeine-based medications are recommended for treating headaches when the person does not take a lot of caffeine, irrespective of their sensitivity to it.
Also, drink plenty of water to flush the toxic substances from your liver and body.
Get enough of sleep
In most instances, caffeine headaches peak in severity before they start to get better as the body gradually adjusts to having little or no caffeine. For people who’re addicted to caffeine, the headache is worst during the first 24 hours of abstinence, after which it gradually declines in the following days.
Are caffeine headaches preventable?
It is hard to prevent a caffeine-induced headache unless you completely eliminate it from your diet – foods, drinks, and snacks. Usually, having small amounts of caffeine periodically, like what is contained in a serving of dark chocolate is not enough to trigger a caffeine headache.
The other option is to consume the same amount of caffeine every day without failure. You should not vary your intake by more than 50 mg per day, even on particularly busy days when you need to work without rest.