Is Caffeine the Solution, or the Source of your Headaches?

Is Caffeine the Solution, or the Source of your Headaches?

March 28, 2022
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With close to 90% of the U.S. population consuming at least one caffeinated beverage per day, caffeine is easily America's most popular drug.1

That's right, caffeine is technically a drug. More specifically, it is a stimulant of the central nervous system that has effects on your brain similar to amphetamines, cocaine, or heroin- albeit much milder of course!1

Before you begin to think this article is to read like a "This Is Your Brain On Drugs" advertisement, please be reassured that we know there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying your morning cup of joe! In fact, when consumed in moderation, caffeine can be an extremely beneficial addition to your life. Caffeine has been shown to boost your energy and mood, improve cognitive and physical performance, and even help your body burn fat.2

When consumed in greater quantities, however, caffeine can stealthily shift from being the solution to the common woes of living a busy life to being the source of a number of common health complaints. Read on to learn the signs that your caffeine consumption might be drifting into the 'too much' territory, plus pick up some tips for how to cut back without a withdrawal headache.

Caffeine Criteria

The general guidelines for caffeine are pretty simple on the surface:

  • Healthy Adults - Most experts recommend consuming less than 400mg caffeine per day.
  • Pregnant or Nursing Mothers- Like other ingested drugs, caffeine can pass the placental barrier and can be secreted through breast milk, so target 200mg per day or less.1, 3
  • Teens and Kids- Due to differences in brain development and body size, teens should limit their caffeine intake to just 100mg per day, and ideally kids should consume as little as possible.1

Keep in mind that two cans of soda or one 8-ounce cup of coffee is about equivalent to 100mg of caffeine, although not every cup is brewed equally!)2 It is also important to remember that not everyone responds to caffeine in the same way - depending on your genetics, and how much caffeine you are used  to consuming, your sensitivity may be higher.3

How Much Is Too Much?

Ultimately, the best way to figure out if your consumption level is right for you is to listen to your body. If you regularly experience any of the following symptoms, you may want to consider cutting back.

  • Headache - I'm sure you've heard that a headache can be a sign of withdrawal from caffeine, but did you know it can also trigger or intensify a headache in some cases?4 If you are experiencing regular headaches without a change in your caffeine consumption, it might be worthwhile to try less instead of more.
  • Anxiety - Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and activity in the brain. When consumed in moderation it can contribute to feelings of happiness, but as the amount you intake increases, it can also leave you feeling jittery, anxious, or irritable. If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder you may find your symptoms are exacerbated and you may want to avoid caffeine altogether.2
  • Sleep Disruptions - After a tough night's sleep you may think caffeine is exactly what you need to get through the day, but unless you want the cycle to continue, remember to cut yourself off by the afternoon. Levels of caffeine in your blood stream peak around an hour after consumption, but it will take closer to 6 hours to reduce those levels to half the original amount, and up to 10 hours to completely clear it from your bloodstream.5
  • Irregular Heartbeat - Caffeine can cause a mild increase in both your heart rate and raise your blood pressure. While on the surface it doesn't necessarily have to be alarming, it can give you the sensation that your heart is fluttering or skipping a beat, so people who already have anxiety, high blood pressure, or other heart conditions should be extra mindful of these symptoms and aim to reduce their caffeine intake.2
  • Dehydration- Given its diuretic properties, caffeine will increase urine production and your need to use the restroom. Without a proper replacement of other liquids, particularly water, it's easy to get dehydrated. In addition to the loss of urine, also goes important nutrients. One study of those who consume four cups of coffee per day (the maximum end of recommended daily guidelines) showed reduced levels of calcium, B12, magnesium, potassium and other key nutrients, many of which are essential for good bone health.4
  • Stomach Issues - Caffeine can accelerate your metabolism, but it also can increase your stomach's natural acid production, which can lead to uncomfortable heartburn symptoms, and also worsen existing problems such as stomach ulcers.1, 2

Tips for Cutting Back Successfully

If you recognize some of the aforementioned symptoms in yourself, you may want to take measures to cut back on your caffeine consumption.

  • Take Stock- A great first step is to recognize how much caffeine you are currently consuming. Bear in mind it isn't just coffee or energy drinks that contain caffeine, consider other sources such as soda, tea, chocolate, and some over-the-counter medications.2
  • Take it Slow- The best way to avoid withdrawal symptoms when cutting back on caffeine is to do it gradually. Aim to decrease your intake over the course of a month, cutting the amount by half each week.1
  • Take Advantage of the Alternatives- Opt for "half-caf" coffee, or perhaps one of your servings with decaf to still enjoy the taste without the extra dose of caffeine. If you are a soda drinker, check out some 'fizzy water' alternatives to mix into your rotation.
  • Take Extra Good Care of Yourself- There are a number of alternative, natural ways to increase your energy and mood besides caffeine. As you are cutting back, be extra mindful of exercising more, eating a diet rich in nutrients, getting plenty of sleep, and especially drinking more water in place of caffeinated beverages.1

Sources and Footnotes:

1. Kuakini.org, February 2022

2. Health.ClevelandClinic.org, September 28, 2021

3. MayoClinic.org, March 6, 2020

4. VeryWellHealth.com, December 6, 2021 

5. My.ClevelandClinic.org, December 13, 2020