How bad is caffeine withdrawal? What causes it?

January 26, 2017 5 min read

How bad is caffeine withdrawal? What causes it?

How bad is caffeine withdrawal? People who have a caffeine habit may empathize with a scene of the 1931 production of Frankenstein, in which the mad scientist exults over the animation of his monster, exclaiming “It’s alive! It’s a alive, it’s alive!” I know I get animated in the morning after drinking my first cup of the ichor we call coffee.

Caffeinated products are wildly popular worldwide, used by as much as 90 percent of the adult population. An estimated 80 percent of American adults take caffeine in one product or another, and it’s estimated half of those people are prone to headaches for one reason or another. If you are among the caffeine users who get caffeine withdrawal headaches from coffee, tea or energy drinks, there are a few things you can do to minimize the pain.

Caffeine withdrawal

In a study from 2004, Johns Hopkins Medicine looked at the research on caffeine withdrawal and concluded about 50 percent of people who quit get symptoms, not just of headaches but other disorders too. From a press release about the study:

‘Caffeine is the world’s most commonly used stimulant, and it’s cheap and readily available so people can maintain their use of caffeine quite easily. The latest research demonstrates, however, that when people don’t get their usual dose they can suffer a range of withdrawal symptoms, including headache, fatigue, difficulty concentrating. They may even feel like they have the flu with nausea and muscle pain.’—Roland Griffiths Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and neuroscience

A study of studies

In the 170 years of caffeine withdrawal studies Dr. Griffiths and his colleague reviewed, the press release says, doctors and other medical professionals did not have a scientifically based framework for diagnosing a caffeine syndrome. They aimed to review the literature on symptoms or illness caused by caffeine withdrawal and see how often it results in significant distress.

Dr. Griffiths and his colleague, Laura Juliano of American University, surveyed 57 experimental studies and nine surveys on caffeine withdrawal to assess veracity of the studies’ findings. They were convinced years ago that caffeine withdrawal was so serious it should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.Caffeine syndromes are now included in the DSM.

Caffeine headache

The website Caffeine Informer has a comprehensive article titled Anatomy of a Caffeine Headache: Causes, Remedies, Prevention. The site lists the top 5 reasons people get caffeine withdrawal headaches: stopping caffeine intake entirely; varying the amount of daily caffeine intake; and caffeine overdose, sensitivity or allergy.

Caffeine Informer says reducing daily caffeine intake by just 50 to 100 mg can give a person a mild headache. The article states that a caffeine-dependent person who gets varying amounts of caffeine per day tends to get more headaches than people who get nearly the same amount daily.

So once a headache starts, what should you do? “The best remedy for a caffeine withdrawal headache is to consume more caffeine,” Caffeine Informer states.

The site says a caffeine withdrawal headache begins behind the eyes. As soon as you feel that, think back to how much caffeine you had that day, and then consume enough to get back to your daily dose.

Some pain relievers, including Excedrin and other over-the-counter medications, have caffeine that can help alleviate the headache.

If you want to quit

For people who are quitting the caffeine habit, Caffeine Informer recommends taking over-the-counter pain medicine, drinking plenty of water, avoiding pain relievers and other products that have caffeine, and getting plenty of sleep. Another good way to quit caffeine is to gradually and incrementally reduce the amount you take over the course of a couple of weeks.

I have weaned myself off of coffee a couple of times, without experiencing headaches or other withdrawal symptoms. The Caffeine Informer site has a lot of good advice on how to kick the caffeine dependency.

So does WebMD.com, which has an article that says caffeine can help you if you have a tension headache or a more severe migraine. The drug companies put caffeine in some (not all, read the ingredients) pain relievers because it may make them up to 40 percent more effective. WebMD says using ibuprofen, acetaminophen or aspirin that contain caffeine makes the drugs work more quickly and reduces the pain for a longer time.

Caffeine heals and hurts

Caffeine can both help cure and cause headaches.

“Since caffeine narrows the blood vessels that surround your brain, when you stop taking it they expand again, and that can cause pain,” WebMD states.

But caffeine is also an anti-inflammatory substance that can help cure headaches, by, again, narrowing blood vessels.

WebMD says if you suffer from caffeine withdrawal headaches, monitor your headaches and note what helps make them go away. It also advises getting enough sleep, drinking water, eating nutritious foods and getting exercise every day. Also, it might be worth it to try mediation, massage or other relaxation methods instead of medications.

Caffeine intoxication

In 2013 Live Science published an article about a malady included in the latest version of the DSM: caffeine intoxication. Symptoms of caffeine intoxication include:

Restlessness, nervousness, excitement, red face, gastrointestinal upset, muscle twitching, rambling speech, sleeplessness, rapid and irregular heartbeat and other symptoms may be familiar to many of us, but they are telltale signs of caffeine intoxication.

These symptoms may lead to other symptoms, of caffeine withdrawal if you stop taking it. They include the headaches we mentioned, depressed mood and difficulty concentrating.

Caffeine use disorder

There is yet another caffeine syndrome called caffeine use disorder in which users take so much caffeine that they are affected physically, mentally or socially — and may be unable to stop their caffeine habit.

The New York Post reported on the changes to the DSM: “By classifying caffeine in this way, the energy-inducing substance joins the ranks of powerful drugs like alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, hallucinogens and other mind altering substances.”

Take heart if your favorite mood-altering substance is sounding more and more like horrifying, mind-bending, extremely addictive, psychoactive drugs. Some experts can’t understand the inclusion of these disorders in the DSM-5.

Temporary symptoms

“The symptoms of caffeine withdrawal are transitory, they take care of themselves,” Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist told LiveScience. “It’s just a natural response to stopping caffeine, and it clears up on its own in short order.”

Caffeine intoxication is also temporary, and she doesn’t think it should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders either.

Mark Miller
Mark Miller


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