Caffeine and Migraines
Many migraine sufferers swear that a big cup of coffee can overcome the terrible throbbing, stabbing, aching pain of a migraine attack, and as it turns out, science can back them up. In fact, caffeine factors into a number of leading headache pain relievers (Midol, Anacin, and Excedrin, among others), and although it’s long been suspected that caffeine can help the body absorb certain compounds, it also seems to have an analgesic effect itself – when used carefully.
How Caffeine and Migraines are Linked
Caffeine and migraines have a particularly strange relationship: sometimes it relieves, and sometimes it exacerbates the pain. The good news is that caffeine definitely has the potential to relieve pain, and although the intricate chemical interactions are still a mystery, experts know that it works on the brain in two notable ways.
- Adenosine: caffeine interferes with a naturally-occurring chemical in your brain called adenosine, which is responsible for electrical activity, dilating blood vessels, and some aspects of sleep. During migraine headaches, the level of adenosine in your blood increases, and studies have found that this chemical can even trigger migraine attacks. Caffeine can block the effects of adenosine on brain cells, which limits the painful interaction.
- Contraction of blood vessels: the therapeutic effects of caffeine are connected to the brain’s vascular network. By constricting the blood vessels, caffeine can limit the pressure and pain of a headache. But the body will adjust to this new state, so if you suddenly stop using caffeine, your blood vessels dilate too much and the rush of blood through the brain will cause a headache.
The right balance of caffeine will make all the difference in your migraine treatment. For instance, caffeine can increase the efficacy of pain relievers by up to 40%, and it helps the body absorb these drugs more quickly for faster relief. However, caffeine is an addictive drug, and caffeine withdrawal is a very common source of headaches, especially when you’ve been using it for a long time. An overload of caffeine from pain relievers can lead to “rebound headaches”, where the medication itself is responsible for continuing headaches, so more pain relief is taken, resulting in an agonising cycle.
How Much is Too Much?
Caffeine is a tricky drug to use to your advantage, partly because it has some serious downsides, and partly due to the unpredictable effects. Sure, you can count on a burst of energy and a feeling of well-being, but caffeine is more powerful than many people suspect, and you can wind up struggling with new health issues. The key is to determine your personal threshold, and manage your intake according to your body’s response to the stimulant.
Next page: healthy sources of caffeine.