Coffee and migraines: what you need to know

What are migraines? What can trigger a migraine?

For Migraine Awareness week, happening this week, we wanted to explore the relationship between coffee and migraines. Sure, some of us feel a slight headache when we’ve overdone it on the strong espresso, but for others it’s a sure-fire way to spend the day in bed recovering from debilitating symptoms.

1 in 7 of us Brits are affected by migraines – that’s 14.3% of the population. Not sure whether you fall into that category? Migraines present with the following symptoms: a throbbing headache felt in the head, face and neck lasting anywhere from 4 hours to 3 days, fatigue that follows an attack, nausea, anxiety, increased sensitivity to light and sound, and even stomach pain.

Migraine triggers are varied but include:

  • Bright lights and loud noises
  • Alcohol
  • Food and drink
  • Tiredness
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy or taking the combined contraceptive pill

How much caffeine can you have a day?

For a healthy adult, 400 mg of caffeine is recommended as the safe limit per day. This amount fluctuates with variables such as weight and prevalent health factors, but provides a guideline to avoid effects on our hearts, bones, fertility, behaviour, and headaches or caffeine migraines.

So how much is 400 mg of caffeine? This equates to approximately four cups of brewed coffee, ten 300ml cans of fizzy drinks, and two energy drinks. However, caffeine content varies wildly, especially in coffee – it depends on the grind, and how it has been roasted and brewed. Let’s just say, it’s not always simple to register the levels within certain beverages. Sometimes we may find ourselves accidentally ingesting more than is deemed safe by professionals – certain medications, for example, can have caffeine within them and may not have been considered when totting up your daily cups. Green tea caffeine is also often overlooked.

Certain individuals also may not have the same threshold for caffeine consumption; they may even be intolerant to coffee. It’s important to listen to your own body, monitor your intake, and decide what suits you.

coffee migraines food intolerance

Can coffee trigger headaches?

Coffee can trigger headaches or migraines in three main ways:

  • Caffeine causing the narrowing of blood vessels around your brain
  • As a result of an intolerance
  • As a result of caffeine withdrawal

Having regular headaches that you think might be related to coffee? Firstly, make sure you are not consuming more than the recommended daily limit of 400 mg of caffeine. Suddenly cutting it from your daily routine may result in unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal that include headaches, lethargy, irritability and more. Consider taking a food intolerance† test to decipher whether you are intolerant to coffee, including the milk that tops your daily latte, or any other foods that may be interacting in a way that increases migraine triggers and symptoms.

Is coffee good for migraine headaches?

Strangely enough, while caffeine is a frequent cause of headaches or migraines, research shows that it might actually have the power to help them. Found in many medications for pain relief, it works by reducing inflammation in the affected part of the body. When working in tandem, caffeine may make ibuprofen, aspirin, and paracetamol work better and more effectively.

Perhaps coffee can help your migraine headache then, but only in a small and certified dose. Too much caffeine and you may increase vulnerability to migraine triggers.

Can you be intolerant to coffee?

A reaction to coffee can either be attributed to a food intolerance, caused by a component of your coffee drink, or might show a sensitivity to caffeine. If symptoms persist even after switching to decaffeinated beverages (coffee without caffeine), it’s likely that you could well be intolerant to coffee. Intolerances are not life-threatening but can cause great discomfort.

What are the symptoms of coffee intolerance?

Finding yourself often with joint pain, anxiety, stomach pain, headaches or migraines, fatigue, or IBS? They could be a result of your reaction to the ingredients in tea or coffee – or even a range of other food ingredients.

Carefully eliminating foods that you have an intolerance could have an incredibly beneficial effect on your symptoms.

Madhu Sohanpal had been suffering from debilitating migraines since the early 1990s. “My migraines soon turned into vertigo and I had an irritated stomach. I was also constantly tired and drained. I have children and it made it difficult for me to keep up with their activities,” explains Madhu.

YorkTest offers a fast track elimination diet by analysing IgG reactions to up to 208 food and drink ingredients. The Food&DrinkScan Premium programme, which involves sending a finger prick sample to the company’s laboratories, revealed that Madhu had reactions to cow’s milk, eggs, yeast and anise seed with borderline reactions to white grape, red grape, wheat and salmon.

After eliminating her trigger foods with help from two consultations with a registered Nutritional Therapist, she noticed a significant improvement to her health over the following weeks. “My headaches reduced, and my vertigo disappeared,” she said.

For those with migraines or debilitating headaches, understanding your own personal food and drink intolerances can really make a difference.

Our information is intended to provide nutritional advice for dietary optimisation. YorkTest do not claim to treat or cure symptoms and recommend that you discuss any medical concerns you have with a GP before undertaking a YorkTest programme.  
† YorkTest define food intolerance as a food-specific IgG reaction
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