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December 19, 2012 5:01 PM   Subscribe

CoffeeFilter: Why does drinking coffee prevent me from getting headaches? Is there another substance that has the same headache-relieving properties, but without the stimulating effects of caffeine.

I grew up getting headaches, on average about one a month. Sometimes bad migraines, often just nasty headaches. I started drinking coffee a few years ago and have had one headache like that since. The change is incredible. (Unless I don't have coffee, in which case I have the begginings of a headache by midday.)

I've done a bunch of googling on this and there are no clear answers as to why this works. Some people say caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, most say it is a vasodilator - both could have effects on headaches. Lots of sources say that caffeine helps other drugs work better and that is why it helps with headache, but I'm not taking any other drugs. Most places agree there is a link between caffeine and headache, no two seem to agree on what that is though. Any information would be appreciated.

Secondly, and this is the more important question, I don't always like the stimulating effect of caffeine - which I am very sensitive to. I always love not getting headaches though, so I keep drinking it. Is there anything else that would prevent headaches, but not have that stimulating effect?
posted by deadwax to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like a basic caffeine addiction. Any other caffeine source would probably suffice: black tea for example, or dark chocolate. The important thing to avoid a withdrawal-related headache is to have the same amount of caffeine every day and at roughly the same time (or none).
posted by 2bucksplus at 5:10 PM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Unless I don't have coffee, in which case I have the begginings of a headache by midday.

This part is just because you are addicted to caffeine. Caffeine is a known treatment for headaches, which are not very well understood in general, but my understand has always been that it works best when only used at the onset of a headache. But, there are aspirin formulations (Excedrin) that have caffeine in them.

You could try weaning yourself off caffeine (this would involve about a week's worth of withdrawal headaches), and then using something like Excedrin only when you feel one coming on.
posted by OmieWise at 5:11 PM on December 19, 2012

"Extra strength headache relief" pills like Excedrin contain caffeine. Try taking them when you feel a headache coming on.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 5:11 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I, too, assumed at first that the OP must just be addicted to caffeine, but it doesn't sound like it:
I grew up getting headaches, on average about one a month. Sometimes bad migraines, often just nasty headaches. I started drinking coffee a few years ago and have had one headache like that since. The change is incredible.
posted by willbaude at 5:21 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry to threadsit, I should have been clearer. It's not withdrawal I'm worried about, I've gone cold turkey a couple of times and dealt with those headaches. The problem is that I'm then again prone to debilitating headaches that have nothing to do with caffeine. I'm then dealing with trying to relieve the symptoms, often without very much success, which then leads to a night taking codeine and trying to sleep it off, obviously it's not exactly a productive time. The fact that caffeine actually prevents these types of headaches is the reason I keep on drinking it.

FWIW I have one strong espresso every morning when I get up, rarely more. That's still stimulating enough that I'd like to not have it all the time.
posted by deadwax at 5:21 PM on December 19, 2012

If you can get over the withdrawal hump, it's possible that ibuprofen + caffeine will quickly get rid of any bad headache you have-- so not prevention, but fast treatment (IANAD, talk to your first about any new drugs, etc.)

You could also try having green tea in the morning. I've found that it has enough caffeine to help with headaches, but not enough to make me jittery.
posted by charmcityblues at 5:26 PM on December 19, 2012

From what I understand, as you said, caffeine is a vasodilator. That means it expands the blood vessels to let more blood flow through. Some migraines and headaches are caused by blood vessel constriction, so expanding them can eliminate the headaches entirely. I found some info on that here:

It sounds to me (IANAD) that the coffee habit has helped out with the headaches, meaning perhaps you're prone to the types of headaches caused by the constriction of blood vessels. I would recommend seeing a doctor if you step off of caffeine (I would do it gradually!) and have another headache such as you've described, once you're sure you're not having a caffeine-withdrawal headache.

I would certainly mention to the doctor that the caffeine has helped, but that since you're sensitive to its other effects, you'd rather another solution than a stimulant like caffeine.
posted by juliebug at 5:30 PM on December 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

This page suggests that it's because caffeine blocks adenosine receptors:
The real reason caffeine aborts primary headache

According to the prevailing view, caffeine aborts caffeine withdrawal headache episodes by reversing caffeine withdrawal, but aborts migraine by some different, unidentified mechanism. Yet caffeine has only one known mechanism of action at likely doses: occupation and blockade of adenosine receptors. Caffeine must, therefore, relieve both caffeine withdrawal headache and migraine by blocking adenosine receptors. Caffeine's ability to abort migraine and other primary headaches provides insight into the causal mechanism of those headaches: evidently, adenosine receptor activation is an essential part of the causal mechanisms of both migraine and caffeine withdrawal headache.
I'm a couple drinks in and not really up to trying to understand what else might block those same receptors, but that might be a tack to take in your research.
posted by emumimic at 5:35 PM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

My SIL is prone to migraines and she finds drinking an espresso or 2 when she feels the onset of one can really help her avoid a full blown migraine. It was suggested to her by her doctor as it improves blood flow and that would be helpful for her problem. I think a lot depends on the type of headaches you get. If it works for you that's great but it would probably be a good thing to mention to your doctor next time you go if only so they can put it in your records.
posted by wwax at 5:40 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Talk with your health care provider about a daily preventative medication like a beta blocker or calcium channel blocker. They can prevent some types of headaches, without the stimulating effects of caffeine.

posted by SyraCarol at 5:51 PM on December 19, 2012

There are preventative medications for migraine headaches, but for headaches you only get once a month, the abortive medications might make more sense. Have you talked to your doctor about this? These are prescription medications, aside from over the counter formulations (most of which have some caffeine in them) these are your best options.

Some people find that staying well hydrated or using hormonal birth control can help avert headaches, but others find that those things don't help at all.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:12 PM on December 19, 2012

I feel like I am practically an evangelist for yoga on this site, but honestly, it changed my life. Since doing yoga (almost every day) I no longer get headaches, unless I am dehydrated or something like that, which doesn't even happen often. (I also have a slipped disc which causes headaches that have been MUCH improved since yoga, though this is sort of s different kind of headache issue).

I'm pretty sure it's because yoga gets the blood circulating all over, like no other exercise does, in my opinion. Also, headaches can be related to tension, bad posture, etc, which yoga deals with.

Don't be intimidated by it- anyone can do it and you can start with some basic poses.

By the way, I like coffee too but am not so dependent on it since I started doing yoga.
posted by bearette at 6:27 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some people say caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, most say it is a vasodilator - both could have effects on headaches

Caffeine has a number of physiological effects, some of which lead to vasoconstriction and others to vasodilation. However, my understanding is that caffeine is primarily a cerebral vasoconstrictor (See this article for example) via its action as an adenosine antagonist.

The most common antimigraine medications, triptans and ergotamines, also probably work by causing cerebral vasoconstriction. You might want to talk to your doctor about trying one of these.

Alternatively, you could experiment with seeing exactly how much caffeine is necessary for you to get the headache-prevention effect. For instance, could you get by with half your usual espresso, or replace it with tea, so you weren't getting as strong of a stimulant effect?
posted by bookish at 6:32 PM on December 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Cafergot was a treatment for migraine before the *triptans really hit big. It is ergotamine and caffeine. I don't remember it being particularly stimulating, but that could have been me just being completely exhausted from the migraine episode.
posted by oflinkey at 7:09 PM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

How do you feel about black tea? The caffeine content is lower, so it won't make you jumpy like an espresso will, but with two or three cups over the course of the day you'll get the same sort of dose as a solid shot without the immediate jitters. Also tea is nice.
posted by Jilder at 4:14 AM on December 20, 2012

My girlfriend and I both went caffeine free, sans headaches or any side effects using the supplement L-Phenylalanine after we read this article.
So glad we did it.
posted by THAT William Mize at 5:37 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Counterintuitive: drink more coffee, but maybe watered own or half caf through the day. Your tolerance will increase and you won't find one espresso in the morning quite as stimulating over time.... I speak as a 7 or 8 big cup a day former migraine sufferer, and you'd have to pry my sixth cup from my cold dead hands just as much as my first (heck, I can drink coffee near bedtime and have no problem falling asleep).

The good news is that a whole raft of recent studies have increasingly shown that not only are a lot of the myths about coffee's dangers and risks overstated, but that the drink (not necessarily just the caffeine in it) has hellacious health benefits.

Just the other day I believe it was linked with lower oral cancer rates.

Mmm, having my first cup now (drip brewed Pilon, the best no matter what anyone else tries to convince me is better for four times the price).
posted by spitbull at 5:45 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, caffeine is a vasoactive drug. Meaning that it constricts or dilates your arteries and veins. Migraine headaches, are cause by inflammation in the head. The limited real estate in your skull means that there isn't much room for inflammation- causing pain. Caffeine, and other migraine meds work by constricting the vessels, therefore reducing inflammation. Caffeine is something of a double edged sword in that it can cause headaches as well. If you're getting headaches frequently, I would talk to your doc or get a referral to a neurologist. My headaches have become significantly better managed now that I'm seeing a specialist.
posted by brevator at 7:29 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

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