Is Caffeine a Migraine Trigger?

Moderation May Be the Answer, but More Research Needs to Be Done

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In This Article

Caffeine has remained an elusive culprit when it comes to migraine prevention. Some people strictly avoid caffeine for fear it may trigger an attack, while others swear by their morning cup of joe.

While experts are working hard to sort out the perplexing link between caffeine and migraines, the answer they are finding, unfortunately, is not as simple as labeling caffeine, "migraine friend or foe."

Instead, emerging research suggests that caffeine is NOT a migraine trigger if consumed in moderation. On the flip side, excess caffeine consumption may trigger a migraine attack.

Study: Excess Caffeine Intake Is a Migraine Trigger

In a study in The American Journal of Medicine, 98 participants with episodic migraine completed an electronic diary each morning and evening for six weeks.

Within the diary, the participants reported their caffeinated beverage intake, as well as their migraine characteristics (e.g., onset and duration) and other lifestyle factors (e.g., sleep patterns, alcohol consumption, and physical activity).

Results

When compiling the data from the diaries, the investigators found that over the six-week time period, the participants had an average of 8.4 migraines (which is roughly one to two migraines a week) and an average of 7.9 servings of caffeine per week (which is about one serving per day).

Of note, in this study, one serving of caffeine was defined as an eight-ounce cup of coffee (around one cup), a six-ounce cup of tea, a twelve-ounce can of soda, or a two-ounce can of an energy drink.

When piecing together the link between caffeine intake and migraine incidence, the researchers discovered something interesting.

They found no link between having one to two servings of caffeine drinks and the likelihood of a migraine that same day. The investigators, however, did find that those who drank three or more caffeinated drinks had a higher chance of experiencing a same-day or next-day migraine headache.

Conclusion

The results of this study suggest that if you or a loved one suffer from migraines, drinking one to two caffeinated beverages a day (but no more) may be perfectly fine. In other words, avoiding caffeine altogether may not be necessary to prevent migraine attacks.

Limitations

This study was relatively small (less than one hundred participants), and the participants all had episodic migraine. It's hard to say if caffeine affects those with chronic migraine (15 or more migraines per month) in the same way.

Keep in mind too, even though excess caffeine consumption in this study (three or more servings per day) increases a person's odds of getting a migraine, it does not mean you will definitively get a migraine if you over-indulge in caffeine one day.

The Big Picture

Triggering a migraine is a complex process, and caffeine probably plays a role—although how big that role is may vary from person to person.

In the end, while this study offers a statistical finding (one versus three cups of coffee may affect your migraines), it's best to listen to your own body and base your caffeine intake on your own experiences and your doctor's advice.

Sources of Caffeine

If you are looking to cut back on your caffeine intake or perhaps want to more accurately record your caffeine amount each day for your headache diary, it's important to be aware of all the potential sources of caffeine.

Besides caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks, other sources of caffeine include:

  • Coffee ice cream, yogurt, and frozen yogurt
  • Chocolate, especially dark and bittersweet (e.g., milk, bars, and cocoa)
  • Certain headache medications (e.g., Excedrin Migraine and Fioricet and Fiorinal)
  • Certain dietary supplements (e.g., Zantrex-3 weight-loss supplement)
  • Some snack foods (e.g., Jelly Belly Extreme Sport Beans and Awake Energy Granola)

Caffeine Withdrawal Headache

If you do decide to eliminate or limit caffeine, it's important to slowly cut back in order to avoid a phenomenon called a caffeine withdrawal headache.

This type of headache develops within 24 hours after your last caffeine intake.

While the pain can be soothed within one hour by consuming 100 milligrams (mg) of caffeine (around one cup of coffee), the headache can be pretty debilitating.

As an aside, technically, only people who regularly consume 200 mg or more per day of caffeine for at least two weeks are prone to caffeine withdrawal headaches.

That said, this is not a hard and fast rule—research suggests that this type of headache may occur at lower doses and/or shorter intervals.

A Word From Verywell

Caffeine plays a paradoxical role in your migraine health—it may trigger your migraine, especially if taken in excess, and yet it may help alleviate your pain if a migraine does occur. Hopefully, with more research, we can get some more clarity on the caffeine/migraine link in the future.

Until then, listen to your own body and do what works for you—if you enjoy a cup of joe every morning and it does not seem to trigger your migraines (keeping a headache diary may be helpful here), then continuing this is sensible.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mostofsky E, Mittleman MA, Buettner C, Li W, Bertisch SM. Prospective Cohort Study of Caffeinated Beverage Intake as a Potential Trigger of Headaches among Migraineurs. Am J Med. 2019 Aug 2. pii: S0002-9343(19)30210-4. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2019.02.015

  2. National Headache Foundation. Does Caffeine Trigger or Treat Headaches? Published 2019.

  3. Lee MJ, Choi HA, Choi H, Chung C-S. Caffeine discontinuation improves acute migraine treatments: a prospective clinic-based study. J Headache Pain. 2016;17(1):71. doi:10.1186/s10194-016-0662-5

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