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So Many Factors Can Trigger Your Caffeine Headaches — Here’s the Lowdown

Young woman is drinking and making a budget

For me, the smell of freshly brewed coffee is the equivalent of a comforting, warm hug. Those first few sips hardly disappoint either, as I’m instantly energized to take on the day. But, all good things come to an end after too many caramel-infused cups leave me with a headache.

That’s just one example of how complicated my relationship with caffeine can be — and I know I’m not alone in feeling this love-hate connection.

“Genetically, we all metabolize caffeine differently. Although caffeine can help to reduce headaches (by restricting inflammation!), it can also bring one on by its impact of narrowing blood vessels in the brain,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a Clear Probiotics scientific adviser and the president of KAK Consulting, says.

The amount of sleep you’re getting, your diet, if you’re prone to migraines, and your water intake directly influence your caffeine-headache vulnerability, she adds. That’s why talking to a doctor about your lifestyle and how quickly your body metabolizes caffeine are important steps toward feeling better.

Depending on the medications you take, adding caffeine into the mix can encourage migraines, too — which is another topic worth discussing with a medical professional.

One thing is for sure: it takes some trial and error (under your doctor’s guidance) to truly understand how caffeine impacts your life and how to adjust accordingly.

“Any amount of caffeine will provide some alertness, so I often tell my patients who get headaches to limit their consumption to safer levels (about 400 mg a day) and to space out their cups,” Kirkpatrick says.

“For example, if someone wants about four cups a day, space out every three hours. Or if two cups, then having one cup in the [morning] and one cup in the afternoon.”

If you’re going above that 400 mg a day quota (your sugary beverage add-ins could be part of the problem!), it could be best to scale back and see how you feel.

The American Migraine Foundation says that strategically increasing your water intake can help, too. “You should try to drink at least eight, eight-ounce glasses of water per day if you aren’t drinking caffeinated drinks; if you are, try to add a full glass for each cup to offset its dehydrating effects.”

Yes, monitoring your water and caffeine intake sounds like a lot of work, but know it’s a lot better of an approach than going cold turkey. Quitting caffeine can induce headaches, as well. Instead, the American Migraine Foundation recommends talking to your doctor about reducing your caffeine intake slowly by 25 percent each week to avoid withdrawal symptoms — using an online caffeine calculator can help you do so.

The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to break up with your caffeine of choice — workshopping the relationship can go a long way.

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