Giving up caffeine can leave your head throbbing—here are a few simple ways to find relief.
If you’ve ever attempted to quit or cut back on caffeine, or were running late one day and didn’t have time to stop for your usual morning cup of coffee or caffeinated tea, then you know that getting through the day without everyone’s favorite legal stimulant can be a challenge. You may find that you’re especially irritable, or struggling to stay awake and focus on your work.
In some cases, depriving yourself of the caffeine fix you rely on to get through the day can leave you with a throbbing headache. Anyone who’s had a dreaded caffeine headache before knows they make a difficult day even harder. No one should have to deal with that, so we reviewed the research and spoke with a doctor to find out what causes the pain, and how to get rid of a caffeine headache.
How does caffeine affect you?
Though many people—including an estimated 80 to 90 percent of North American adults—consume caffeine on a regular basis for a variety of reasons, the common stimulant is best known for its ability to effectively keep someone awake and alert. “[Caffeine] increases activity in your central nervous system,” explains Laura Purdy, MD, a Miami-based family medicine physician. “It can also improve your mood, provide clarity, and make you feel more productive.”
In other words, caffeine can actually be beneficial, especially for boosting alertness, mood, and cognition, when consumed in low to moderate doses (from 30 to 400 milligrams per day—or no more than about three cups of coffee a day).
What causes a caffeine headache?
For some people, consuming caffeine can actually trigger headaches and jitters. But here, a caffeine headache refers more to the throbbing, pounding ache that can occur due to caffeine withdrawal. Caffeine withdrawal refers to the symptoms that a regular, daily caffeine consumer—even if it’s only a single cup of coffee or tea each day—experiences after stopping their regular caffeine intake. Headaches are among the most common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, along with tiredness, fatigue, decreased alertness, decreased energy, and difficulty concentrating.
“Your body is literally going through withdrawal symptoms, as if you were coming off of any other substance,” explains Beth Czerwony, RD, LD, registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic, in an article from the hospital. “Because it affects the central nervous system, you’re going to get shaky, irritable, and headache-y.”
The severity, onset, and duration of these symptoms differs from person to person, depending on someone’s sensitivity to and tolerance for caffeine, as well as their lifestyle and, of course, how much time has passed since they last consumed the stimulant, Purdy continues. “Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal can appear instantly when [someone’s] daily caffeine is missed, or over a span of a few days, when caffeine is out of the body completely,” she explains.
Most of the time, caffeine headaches and other withdrawal symptoms begin 12 to 24 hours after someone’s last serving of caffeine, peak after 20 to 51 hours, and can last up to nine days, according to a resource from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Library of Medicine. That said, caffeine headaches typically don’t last for more than a few hours, Purdy notes.
Caffeine withdrawal headaches and other symptoms are especially common when someone attempts to quit the stimulant cold turkey—or abruptly and completely—rather than cutting down on it gradually. “Stopping consumption all at once is not recommended, as your body will react if you typically have a high daily intake,” Purdy explains. “[This makes getting] a caffeine headache more likely.”
How to Get Rid of a Caffeine Headache
1. Consume a little bit of caffeine.
The fastest and most effective way to get rid of a caffeine headache is to give your body what it wants: caffeine. (In fact, whether or not a headache is being triggered by caffeine withdrawal, many experts recommend consuming caffeine to help relieve a headache, since the stimulant seems to help dilate blood vessels in the brain.) If you're trying to keep your caffeine intake down, reach for something that's still caffeinated, but slightly less so, such as black tea, green tea, or even a bit of dark chocolate.
However, if reaching for caffeine is not an option, or you’re really trying to cut down on dependency—or give it up completely—here are some other ways to try to get some caffeine headache relief:
2. Take an OTC pain reliever.
The same over-the-counter pain relievers that you’d take for any other headache—like acetaminophen and ibuprofen—also help get rid of caffeine headaches, Purdy says. However, if you’re trying to quit caffeine altogether, you’ll need to read the label carefully, as many of these medications actually do contain caffeine. While caffeinated pain relievers will likely put an end to your headache, they’ll also perpetuate your dependence on the stimulant—just something to be cognizant of.
3. Stay sufficiently hydrated.
Given the widespread (but inaccurate) belief that drinking water is a miraculous cure-all for virtually any health- or wellness-related issue, it’s not surprising that it’s frequently touted as a surefire way to stop a caffeine headache. Though there’s limited scientific evidence suggesting that drinking water or intravenous hydration may help alleviate caffeine withdrawal symptoms, it likely has more to do with preventing or getting rid of a headache caused by dehydration, and providing your body with the water it needs to function, and less to do with “flushing” any remaining caffeine out of your system.
4. Drink a cup of decaf.
A small, new study from researchers at the University of Sydney found that participants’ caffeine withdrawal symptoms—including caffeine-related headaches—improved after drinking decaffeinated coffee. A total of 61 heavy coffee drinkers (who drink three or more cups a day) went 24 hours without coffee, rated their withdrawal symptoms, then were split into three groups. One group was given water to drink, and the other two were given decaf—though one of the groups was told it was regular coffee—then were asked to rate their caffeine withdrawal symptoms 45 minutes later.
“The group we lied to reported a big drop in caffeine withdrawal even though there’s no pharmacological reason why it should,” Llew Mills, PhD, a senior research associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Addiction Medicine and lead author of the study explained in a news release. “Because they expected their withdrawal to go down, it did go down. In other words, a placebo effect.”
Interestingly, the study’s findings, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in January 2023, indicate that the group that knew they were getting decaf also reported a reduction in withdrawal symptoms, like headaches, while the group that was given just water didn’t experience any improvement.
Ultimately, Mills and the other authors of the study concluded that because people tend to associate the taste and smell of coffee with improvement of withdrawal symptoms, decaf coffee can achieve the same outcome without the caffeine. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a single, relatively small study, so further research is needed. But, if nothing else is working, drinking a cup of decaf coffee might be worth a shot.
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