Caffeine can help relieve migraine symptoms or cause a headache. Here’s why there are both surprising benefits and warnings about coffee and migraine.
People who suffer from migraines often note specific events, or something in their diet, that seem to trigger their headaches and related symptoms (which can include nausea, visual auras, and dizziness). For example, weather patterns, hormone changes like ovulation or the start of a menstrual period, sleep disturbances, and certain medications, foods, or beverages are linked to migraine attacks in some.
On the other hand, migraine sufferers also frequently report things that help migraine symptoms — and drinking coffee when a migraine attack starts is high on the list. But it turns out, coffee can do the opposite, too, and trigger migraines, depending on the individual and the amount of caffeine they consume.
That’s why it’s important to learn about both the surprising benefits and warnings about coffee and migraines.
Coffee has long been used to relieve migraines
Caffeine, a central nervous system stimulant in coffee, tea, and several other beverages, is often cited by headache patients as something that puts the brakes on their migraines.
Although it’s not known exactly how caffeine relieves headaches, there are clues. Caffeine affects the activity of adenosine (a naturally occurring neurotransmitter associated with sleep) because it binds to adenosine receptors in the brain, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
While adenosine normally slows down nerve cell activity along certain pathways, caffeine speeds up the nerve activity. It also causes blood vessels in the brain to constrict, which may be how caffeine helps migraines — vascular headaches associated with blood vessel dilation.
Caffeine is an active ingredient in many headache medications used for migraine relief, including over-the-counter drugs like Excedrin, Midol, and Anacin, and some prescriptions drugs (Fioricet and MIgranal). One study found caffeine was better than placebos and works as well as acetaminophen to soothe tension-type headaches, too.
However, there are both surprising benefits and warnings about coffee, too, especially if you drink it frequently. Over time, your body can develop a tolerance to caffeine if you drink coffee or other caffeine-loaded drinks frequently. Then, if you try to stop your daily jolts of java, you may end up with a whopping headache.
In fact, the American Migraine Foundation points to caffeine withdrawal, even when temporary, as causing “weekend migraines.” These sometimes-severe headaches typically occur on Saturdays or Sundays, when people may sleep in late, delaying their morning coffee and triggering whopper migraines.
Bottom line? The benefits and warnings about coffee and migraine are important
More than 37 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation. Harvard migraine researchers point out the condition afflicts more than one billion adults across the planet. In fact, migraine is the third most common illness in the world.
That’s why understanding the surprising benefits and warnings about coffee and migraine, and how that connection could help treat or cause the condition, is important.
To that end, a team of investigators at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health evaluated caffeinated beverages and migraine frequency.
“While some potential triggers, such as lack of sleep, may only increase migraine risk, the role of caffeine is particularly complex, because it may trigger an attack but also helps control symptoms,” said BIDMC cardiovascular epidemiologist Elizabeth Mostofsky, ScD, who headed the research.
To prevent migraines, limit cups of coffee
To study how the amount and frequency of drinking coffee or other caffeine containing drinks can increase or lower the risk of migraines, Mostofsky and her research team recruited 98 volunteers who reported having two to 15 headaches monthly. For a minimum of six weeks, the study participants kept diaries to record what they ate and drank, how much exercise they got, how well they slept, and their level of personal stress or depression.
Most of the participants, about 66 percent, drank one to two caffeinated beverages a day; 20 percent said they didn’t drink anything with caffeine and 12 percent downed three to four servings a day of coffee or other caffeinated drinks.
The results of the research, published in the American Journal of Medicine, revealed some surprises about people who have migraines.
There was good news for those who are used to drinking one or two cups of java or other caffeinated drinks a day. Keeping coffee consumption to that amount daily wasn’t likely to spark a headache. However, on days when they drank even one more cup, those susceptible for migraines were more likely to be hit with a headache.
And what about people who rarely have a cup of coffee? It turned out the research volunteers who almost never indulged in caffeinated beverages, fearing coffee or similar drinks would spark a headache, were right — at least, in their case. All it took was one or two cups of coffee in a day to trigger a migraine in those not accustomed to caffeine containing drinks.
March 16, 2020