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Ever sip your Starbucks only to find that it gives you a pounding headache? Or perhaps you’re the opposite: One minute too long without your morning latte leaves you with an achy head. Meet caffeine headaches, the enemy of coffee lovers and the caffeine-sensitive alike. If you can’t seem to escape this dreaded discomfort, these experts have got your back with tips on how to get rid of a caffeine headache.
If you’re prone to this uncomfortable side effect, you’re in good company: Headaches are one of the most common symptoms you can experience from taking either too much or not enough caffeine. So if you’re ready to get to the bottom of your aches and pains, read on to learn what experts Jeffrey Engler, MD, and Vishal Patel have to say about the causes of caffeine headaches, why you might get them and what you can do to feel better.
Meet the Expert
What Is A Caffeine Headache?
Headaches are caused by changes in blood flow to your brain, says Patel. And caffeine can, you guessed it, impact your blood flow. Caffeine is a stimulant, which kicks your body into high gear by triggering the fight-or-flight response (as opposed to slowing you down or making you tired), says Egler. And when you're in fight-or-flight mode, your blood vessels constrict, which pushes blood out to the body to prepare it for action, he explains. As the caffeine wears off, however, your body starts to relax again. And that relaxation opens up your blood vessels, sending sudden blood flow to an unsuspecting and unprepared brain, according to Egler. The result? Pain while your system tries to re-adjust to the absence of caffeine.
Why Do You Get Them?
It turns out you can have too much of a good thing: Excessive or prolonged use of caffeine could be the culprit for your headache, says Egler. "The dose makes the poison," he tells Byrdie. "Almost all substances, even those that are thought to be good for you, can become toxic if overdosed or taken excessively. Caffeine is definitely one of those substances." Translation? You can literally overdose coffee.
And even if you're consuming a moderate amount of caffeine, it's still a diuretic, which makes you urinate a lot. And all those trips to the bathroom can dehydrate you, which Egler says could be a cause of your headaches.
You can also get headaches from not ingesting enough caffeine. If you take caffeine regularly, your body starts to establish a new normal where it relies on the substance to function. The more you take it, the more tolerant your body becomes, which means you might need higher and higher doses of caffeine to achieve the desired effect, according to Egler. And this spells trouble for those days when you can't get your hands on some coffee. When your body doesn't get what it needs to function, it can be literally painful to find a new balance — that's why you might get a headache if you don't pour yourself a cup of tea first thing in the morning, or why your head might frequently hurt if you're trying to cut back on soda.
And even those of you who don't drink coffee on the regular might still experience a headache from time to time. That's because some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others, says Patel — in fact, it can be genetic. So if even infrequent caffeine consumption makes you feel funky, you may fall into that category.
How Do You Get Rid of One?
Unfortunately, there’s no magical cure to get rid of a caffeine headache immediately. Treat these like you would another headache, says Patel. Give it time and drink plenty of water to rehydrate. Better yet, stay well-hydrated before and during caffeine consumption to prevent a headache in the first place. And though your impulse may be to take over-the-counter pain medicine to ease your discomfort, Egler recommends holding off. "Two wrongs definitely don’t make a right," he says. Taking pain medicine excessively to quell everyday headaches can lead to its own set of problems, much like caffeine. If you must take something for pain relief regularly, he recommends checking in with your doctor to find the best dose of anti-inflammatory substances like turmeric or magnesium instead.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; Egler says: Sometimes the best way to get rid of a caffeine headache is to limit your dosage or avoid it in the first place. If your headaches result from ingesting too much caffeine, he recommends limiting yourself to one or two cups of your caffeinated beverage of choice, preferably spread out over a few hours. And if you’re sensitive to caffeine, take it easy on the coffee or give it up altogether to prevent pain, recommends Patel.
And if you're getting withdrawal headaches, don't drink more coffee to compensate for the tolerance you're building, warns Egler. That'll only make the problem worse in the future. Instead, stay hydrated and allow your body to transition back to functioning with less caffeine in your system. "If you’re drinking 3+ cups of coffee daily, it might be wise to pause and ask yourself why you are doing that," he adds. "What underlying problem are you self-medicating?" Maybe it's fatigue, mood changes, or something else, but getting to the bottom of it can help you determine a new solution that doesn't cause you pain.
Headaches are a common response to ingesting too much caffeine or withdrawing from it and happen when caffeine-induced changes in blood flow to your brain. If you have one, do all the things that you usually do to manage a regular headache: Hydrate, rest, and give it time to fade. If you’re experiencing caffeine headaches on the regular, consider cutting back or quitting the stuff altogether — you may have a sensitivity, or your body could be getting too comfortable functioning with caffeine in your system. Either way, understanding the source of your headaches can help you make changes accordingly.