There’s a widespread belief that drinking too much coffee causes headaches, mostly through anecdotal evidence. While there is some truth to this, it’s a bit more complicated than you might expect. The truth would probably surprise you quite a bit. Coffee is both good for preventing headaches, and it can potentially be the cause of your headaches.
In essence, yes – coffee, and more directly caffeine, can cause headaches. But it can also help alleviate them. Caffeine as a drug causes a wide variety of different effects throughout the body and brain. Among the many different effects of drinking coffee is the fact that caffeine intake causes vasoconstriction, essentially narrowing the blood vessels throughout the body. In essence, this increases blood pressure and lowers pain. That also causes the heart to beat faster, and alongside caffeine’s mood-boosting properties and norepinephrine release, it’s a main active ingredient in almost every commercial pre-workout. However, quitting coffee after drinking it for a long time actually causes the blood vessels to struggle with normal dilation and vasoconstriction. That can lead to headaches after quitting caffeine. There’s a lot to it all, so let’s go more in-depth.
Caffeine and Headaches
First, it’s important to understand that caffeine is a psychoactive drug. Unlike, say, sugar or salt, caffeine has a manipulative effect on the brain’s cells, affecting the neurotransmission of certain endorphins (improving mood and alertness), blocking adenosine receptors (keeping us from getting sleepy), and causing a small series of physiological changes throughout the body while the “high” lasts. Similar to capsaicin, and unlike some other psychoactive drugs like alcohol and nicotine, caffeine is not particularly addictive. But, as a drug, it does take some getting used to. And once that happens, it loses its effectiveness over time.
That is a phenomenon known as drug tolerance. To addicts, this involves seeking out a greater high, time and time again. To people who love a lot of coffee, this might mean turning your consumption up from a single cup in the morning, to several cups (4+) throughout the day, over the course of many years. Everyone is different when it comes to initial caffeine tolerance and the rate at which that tolerance changes, but over time, it becomes harder and harder for a single cup to have quite the same effect. This is because when presented with a drug that pushes a sudden change in the body, the brain’s automatic response is to balance out this change. To do so, it turns the change into the new normal. The liver becomes more efficient at metabolizing caffeine, and its effects are less pronounced. Quitting coffee then and there, however, just makes things worse.
Caffeine withdrawal, among other things, causes headaches. Even if you’ve only been drinking a cup a day, the body and brain become used to the effects of caffeine and essentially regulate themselves to turn a daily cup of coffee into the new normal. This is natural on the body’s part, and it also isn’t an indication of addiction. Tolerance and withdrawal are normal for any psychoactive chemical and are separate (albeit related) to addiction. For example: antidepressants are not addictive. This has been proven time and time again. However, simply quitting antidepressant use after months of consistently taking the drugs can backfire spectacularly, with symptoms that vary wildly from person to person. This doesn’t mean said person was addicted – it just means the brain and body need more time to adapt from one state of being to another.
The only cure for caffeine withdrawal is more caffeine. Otherwise, if you are planning to essentially “detox” and want to simply reset your caffeine tolerance, you’ll just have to live with it. Other symptoms of caffeine tolerance include being drowsy, sluggish, and unmotivated. Give it a week or two at most, and the symptoms will fade. Reintroduce coffee into your life slowly, or keep the break going for longer.
Could It Be Dehydration?
Caffeine does not dehydrate. Coffee when drunk black is essentially 99% water, and the caffeine needed to produce a diuretic effect is nowhere close to anything most people casually consume. This essentially means that if you drink two cups of coffee and need to pee, you’d probably have to pee after two cups of water, as well. If you drink coffee and feel dehydrated, it’s probably because you didn’t have enough liquid in general. We humans usually need between 2-5 liters of water per day, depending on the size of a person and their activity level. The more active you are, the more water you need to chug. Too much is bad for you as well, because it puts your endocrine system through a large amount of unnecessary stress and really isn’t advisable.
For the most part, to prevent being dehydrated, always have water around you. If you work a desk job, keep a water jug on your desk. A lot of us end up not drinking enough water throughout the day because we simply don’t have the time to get up and refill our cups/bottles or spend time near the water station.
Dehydration can cause headaches. This occurs when the brain shrinks during periods where you’re essentially not having as much water in your system as you should. This is physically painful, and the discomfort can turn into headaches, or migraines. But coffee typically doesn’t cause dehydration. If anything, it should help you rehydrate when you’re thirsty and there isn’t anything else do drink Ideally, however, you should be drinking a healthy amount of water every day.
Caffeine: A Double-Edged Sword
We’ve addressed how caffeine can start a headache – but we’ve only mentioned that it can be used to treat one. Indeed, caffeine can be a powerful tool against headaches, depending on the right context. Migraines, tension headaches, and headaches caused by fever, sickness, or menstruation can all be relieved through caffeine. A large amount of combination painkillers utilizes caffeine alongside a primary ingredient like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Caffeine increases the speed at which these medications are absorbed.
Caffeine lowers inflammation boosts the effects of most non-opioid and non-prescription painkillers and can be especially effective in reducing headaches and pain after a spinal tap, as well as during hypnic headaches, which are common in the elderly after taking a nap. Hypnic headaches in particular can be a plague to people of a certain age, as they often find themselves waking up in the middle of the night, struggling with massive amounts of pain.
Good or Bad?
Research suggests that we don’t know enough to draw a conclusion. It’s true that caffeine is specifically helpful for people with hypnic headaches, and those suffering with temporary headaches after a spinal tap. But in the case of tension headaches or chronic migraines, it could be that caffeine is actually contributing to the cause of your condition. Consider cutting out all coffee and caffeine products for at least a month, to see if you experience any sort of long-term relief.
In the end, a lot of it comes down to personal differences. Sometimes it’s a case of coffee withdrawal, even if you’ve only been having a cup a day for a few months, and sometimes it’s something entirely else, and your coffee is actually helping it keep from getting worse. If you’re experiencing chronic headaches that just won’t go away, you need to see a doctor. They could be indicative of any number of unseen or unusual issues.