How Does Caffeine Worsen Migraine?

How Does Caffeine Worsen Migraine?


The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) in 2017 lists the known addictive drugs such as cocaine and alcohol but one of the most commonly consumed drugs listed there is Caffeine, addictive in amounts as small as 120 mg/day.  Caffeine can be considered to be an acute therapy drug for mild migraine as long as it is only used 2 or less days a week.  Drugs used here are usually Excedrin, Vanquish, or BC powder.  Persons who don’t have migraine can probably safely consume as much as 400 mg of caffeine a day.  However, a small percentage of patients with migraine will develop chronic migraine due to medication overuse headache from overuse of caffeine.  So, caffeine can help migraine with low dose, limited treatment (less than 2 days/week), but at higher, more frequent doses (move than 2 days/week), it may worsen migraine.

 How Does Caffeine Worsen Migraine?  The migraine process first causes inflammation of the trigeminal nerve which carries pain from the thalamus, a nucleus in the center of the brain, to the face and the head.  Twenty to forty minutes later the ganglia of the trigeminal nerve and the cerebral arteries start releasing the inflammatory neurochemicals:  Neurokinin A, Substance P, and CGRP in the brain which cause cerebral arterial vasodilatation and inflammation of the trigeminal nerve, the arteries and the thalamus. See the picture of the migraine treating cycle below.

 These neurochemicals stay in the body for three days and move by normal metabolism from the brain to the liver and then out in the toilet.  That’s why an episode of migraine is defined as lasting 4-72 days.  However, in some migraine patients, on the second or third day of their migraine if they take caffeine, NSAIDs, opioid narcotics, or butalbital starting, they get 3 more days of the inflammatory neurochemicals, and the migraine headache continues.  Then every time the patient takes more pain killers, headache becomes chronic and they develop daily headache.

 It’s like someone pouring gasoline on a wood fire which just keeps burning as long as there is wood and gasoline.  Daily headache develops and the patient then develops chronic migraine which is defined as at least 15 headache days a month, 8 of which have migraine features.  Caffeine taken daily in this situation is one of the most common drugs which causes chronic migraine.  Thus, caffeine taken at low dose and 2 days a week only, may treat mild migraine headaches, but at higher doses, it worsens the situation and causes daily headaches.

The Migraine Timing Cycle

The Migraine Timing Cycle


 Related Questions

 1.Caffeine withdrawal headache.  This is a syndrome that anybody could develop. A person without migraine who drinks a lot of coffee every day, will commonly get a headache when they don’t have their coffee.  However, this withdrawal headache problem is especially acute in persons who have inherited the migraine gene.  These migraineurs who drink a lot of coffee such as 300-400 mg a day, just can’t get off their coffee.  They have found from bitter experience that it is too painful, not worth it, and they don’t even try because their withdrawal headaches are too severe.  Headache doctors treating these patients usually need to provide “bridge therapy” such as a week of prednisone or medrol dose pack or use of DHE as Migranal nasal spray or IM DHE injection so the patient can get through this.  It usually takes 10-14 days to detox someone with chronic migraine and medication overuse headache off of caffeine.


 2.What are the other symptoms of caffeine withdrawal?  Criteria for caffeine withdrawal: Prolonged daily use of caffeine in excess of 250 mg a day and the development of five or more of the following signs during, or shortly after caffeine use:







Flushed face


Gastrointestinal disturbance

Muscle twitching

Rambling flow of thought and speech

Tachycardia or cardiac arrhythmia

Periods of inexhaustibility

Psychomotor agitation






And significant distress in social, occupational and other important areas of functioning.

 Many chronic migraine patients with medication overuse headache say, when asked to detox and get off their drugs: “No problem stopping my Hydrocodone, Advil, Butalbital, Tramadol, or Codeine, but I just have to have my coffee.”

 3.Approximate amounts of caffeine in various beverages:

 Coffee, grande 16 oz Starbucks 550 mg

Coffee, tall 12 oz Starbucks 375 mg

NoDoz or Vivarin 200 mg

7-11 Big Gulp cola 61 oz 190 mg

Coffee non-gourmet 8 oz 135 mg

Excedrin 2 tabs 130 mg

Coffee instant 8 oz 95 mg

Jolt 711 mg

Anacin 65 mg

Coke Cola 12oz 35 mg

Mt. Dew 55 mg

Dr. Pepper 39 mg

Pepsi 37 mg

Tab 46 mg

Cappuccino 8 oz 35 mg

Expresso Starbucks 1 oz 35 mg

Tea, green or instant 8 oz 30 mg

Chocolate dark semisweet 1 oz 20 mg

Coffee decaf non-gourmet 8 oz 5 mg

Coffee decaf Starbucks 8 oz 10 mg

Hot chocolate or cocoa 8 oz 5 mg

Chocolate milk 1 oz 5 mg


 4.Pharmacological effects of caffeine.  Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, which accelerate physiological effects to occur.  Adenosine is a neurochemical that impacts the sleep-wake cycle.  Since caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, it promotes alertness.  Adenosine is involved with calcium channels in muscle.  When caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, there is increased strength and endurance of muscles.  Adenosine causes dilation of cerebral arteries, so if this effect is blocked by caffeine, vasoconstriction occurs.  Vasoconstriction of cerebral arteries treats migraine.

 Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulator, a point that is well made by the coffee ad on TV which calls it “the think drink.”  The duration of the effect of caffeine is 6-8 hours, but even one drink in the morning will interrupt sleep in some persons.  Caffeine constricts smooth muscle found in arteries, the bladder, and the colon.  It is the arterial vasoconstrictive action which helps with mild migraine (Excedrin, B.C. Powder, and Vanquish).  The smooth muscle effect also acts as a mild stimulant on the bladder, promoting urination and in the colon, a bowel movement.

 5.Effect of Caffeine on medical conditions. 

Migraine.  How caffeine can directly help or worsen migraine has already been discussed, but there are other caffeine issues with migraine patients.  Migraine patients often have trouble sleeping.  Electrophysiologically 4 stages of sleep have been described--stage 1 being light sleep and stage 4 being deep sleep, like a baby.  Sleep research studies have found that migraine patients usually only get to stage 2 sleep, which is considered light sleep.  Stage 4 deep sleep is required for the brain to fully recharge.  Caffeine may prevent people from falling asleep easily and also impact restorative REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.  Caffeine’s effect on sleep may increase with ageing.

 Migraine patients can worsen their overall sleep pattern by drinking caffeine and not sleeping well.  Comorbid is a term meaning 2 conditions occur more frequently than by chance (co-with, morbid-illness).  Migraine is comorbid with depression 50% of the time and with GAD, generalized anxiety disorder, 40 % of the time.  Depression and GAD, according to the DSM5, each have insomnia as a cardinal diagnostic symptom.  Drinking caffeine can then worsen sleep, depression, anxiety, and migraine.

Anxiety.  Caffeine’s most notable property is alertness, which with too much caffeine may pass over the line into feeling nervous.  Some people drinking caffeine experience jitteriness, rapid speech, and an uneasy feeling.  1000 mg of caffeine can cause “caffeine induced anxiety disorder.”  


GI upset.  Caffeine stimulates and clears the colon and may cause frequent bowel movements or loose stools within an hour of drinking coffee.  Caffeine may worsen Crohn’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome. 

Alertness and sharper thinking.  Studies have shown that caffeine can improve memory which is helpful for testing at school or in the workplace. 



Energy for exercise.  Caffeine plus carbohydrates increase glycogen in muscle which is helpful for athletic endurance. 

Rapid pulse and elevated blood pressure.  Too much caffeine can increase the resting pulse, a condition known as tachycardia and give a “fluttery feeling.”  High doses of caffeine can change the normal sinus heart rhythm into the dangerous, stroke risk heart pattern of atrial fibrillation.

 6.Where did caffeine come from?

Let’s have a cup.

Let’s have a cup.


About sixty different plant species contain caffeine.  There are beans from two coffee plants, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora.  It also is stored in tea leaves.  In nature it acts as a natural pesticide.  A legend is that the Chinese emperor, Shennong (3000 BC) discovered tea when leaves fell into boiling water and a pleasant-smelling energy producing drink resulted. 

 The earliest evidence of coffee drinking comes from the fifteenth century Sufi monasteries of the Yemen in Arabia.  Coffee spread to Egypt and North Africa and by the 16th century was in Persia and Turkey.  Then it spread to Italy and then the rest of Europe and coffee plants were brought by the Dutch the East Indies and to the Americas.

Cocoa bean residue was found in an ancient Mayan pot dated to 600 BC.

Chocolate was consumed in a bitter drink called Xocolatl and cocoa beans were used as currency.  Runge in 1819, a German chemist, isolated pure caffeine for the first time, calling it “Kaffebase.” 

77 Chocolate.png

 In 1895 the German chemist Fischer first synthesized caffeine from its chemical components and later, derived the structural formula of caffeine, winning the Nobel Prize in 1902.

 7. Regulations of caffeine use.  Because it was recognized to be a stimulant, coffee and caffeine have been regulated.  16th Century Islamists in Mecca made coffee illegal for some classes and Charles II of England tried to ban it in 1676.  Frederick II of Prussia banned it in 1777 and Sweden banned it between 1756 and 1823.

 An early health scare occurred in the U.S. in 1911 when the government seized 40 barrels and 20 kegs of Coca Cola syrup in Tennessee, alleging the caffeine was “injurious to health,” although the judge ruled in favor of Coca-Cola.  Later caffeine was added to the Pure Food and Drug act stating that caffeine was a “habit-forming”, “deleterious” substance which had to be listed on a product’s label.

 Dr. John Pemberton, the pharmacist who invented Coca Cola in 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia, originally marked it as a headache drug to treat migraine.  He called it a “popular nerve tonic, stimulant and headache remedy, “Pemberton’s French Wine Cola,” sold for 5 cents a glass at drug stores.

John Pemberton

John Pemberton

Thanks for reading everyone and see more about Migraine on my big book, Migraine or the small book in the Mini Neurology Series as eBooks or Print on Amazon.

Good luck with this.

Britt Talley Daniel MD