People who suffer from migraines know how debilitating they can be. They can significantly decrease one’s quality of life, making it difficult to work or relax. And it affects many of us: Approximately 38 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches, while another 4 million suffer from chronic migraines. However, migraine headaches can be managed if you know the triggers.
While the exact cause of migraine headaches is unknown, there are a variety of external factors that can possibly trigger a migraine, including stress, anxiety, hormonal changes, bright or flashing lights, lack of food or sleep, and dietary substances, which may include caffeine.
Caffeine sensitivities and migraine headaches
An individual’s sensitivity to caffeine can vary, and undesirable effects of over-consumption of caffeine can be controlled by the timing and amount of caffeine intake. Caffeine sources can include both naturally occurring caffeine such as coffee and chocolate, as well as added caffeine like beverages, energy drinks and gums. Certain groups, such as pregnant women, children and those with heart conditions, should limit caffeine intake.
However, a new study published in the American Journal of Medicine reveals that people who have a history of suffering from migraines could be an additional “sensitivity group.” Given that 85% of Americans (myself included!) reach for caffeine as part of our daily ritual, it’s not surprising that this new research is getting shared on our social feeds and in the media. So what should we take away from this study? Should we go cold turkey on caffeine? Let’s take a look.
The study wanted to examine if certain amounts of caffeine consumption increased the probability of migraine for those who have a preexisting sensitivity. To test this, the study enrolled 98 adults who suffered from migraines in a six-week study. Each day, each participant reported their caffeine intake and other lifestyle events, as well as when a migraine headache started. Based on these data, the researchers calculated the odds of participants having a migraine based on the intake of caffeine and found:
- A total of 825 migraines recorded by participants during the 4,467 days of combined observation.
- A significant but nonlinear association between the number of caffeinated beverages and the odds of a headache.
- One to two servings of caffeinated beverages were not associated with migraines, but three or more servings may be associated with higher odds of migraines.
Notable aspects of the study design:
As noted above, this study focused on individuals who reportedly have a history of suffering from migraines (from the age of ~16). In addition to recording caffeine intake, the researchers collected data about common triggers (sunlight, physical activity, etc.) and found that one to two servings of caffeinated beverages were not associated with headaches on that day, but three servings may be associated with higher odds of headaches.
Additionally, the study looked only at caffeinated beverage consumption from coffee, tea, soda and energy drinks. It did not study other forms of caffeine intake such as chocolate. Notably, 20 percent of the participants reported that “they typically do not consume caffeinated beverages.”
Putting the study in perspective
The amount of caffeine in caffeinated beverages varies, so it’s important to understand caffeine sources and amounts, how caffeine impacts how you feel, and when you’ve reached (or come close to) 400mg of caffeine, the “moderation limit” set by the FDA and health professionals for healthy adults. This “healthy adult” category may not include those who have a history of migraines, and therefore the recommended maximum of 400mg caffeine/day may not be an appropriate recommendation.
While migraine headaches are complex and are not fully understood, studies such as this can open the door to better understanding caffeine sensitivity and the impacts of caffeine consumption alongside other triggers such as lifestyle, stress and other dietary choices.
Caffeine and you
Not everyone can consume the same amount of caffeine. Caffeine may be metabolized differently, and many people therefore can have varying sensitivities to the effects of caffeine. Lifestyle choices such as smoking—and even your diet—may impact how your body reacts to caffeine.
Healthy adults can continue to safely consume up to 400mg of caffeine each day. That’s up to four cups of coffee. But remember, your caffeine intake is based on your body and how you react to caffeine from all sources. For more on information on caffeine, safety, sources and amounts, visit www.foodinsight.org/caffeine.
This article includes contributions by Anthony Flood and Tamika Sims, PhD.