Caffeine withdrawal : Brewing up a headache

cappuchino, coffee, beans,

Caffeine, or rather the lack of it, is a very common cause of headaches. If you normally drink several cups of tea or coffee per day, you’ll probably get a caffeine withdrawal headache if you break your routine. If you sleep late at the weekend, your body will miss its early morning dose of caffeine and you may wake up with a raging headache.

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The received wisdom is that only heavy consumers of caffeine suffer these withdrawal symptoms. Recent research from the US however points to a more widespread problem. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore showed people who consume just 100mg of caffeine (one coffee) a day can show withdrawal symptoms.

Hidden caffeine

Tea and coffee are the most common source of caffeine, but some soft drinks (Coke, Pepsi, Dr Pepper etc) and most stimulant drinks contain caffeine and so does chocolate. 

Can of cola                    40mg

Cup of tea                      50mg 

Cup of instant coffee       75 mg 

Mug of coffee                 100 mg 

Can of stimulant drink     80 mg 

Bar of plain chocolate     50 mg 

The withdrawal effects from these soft drinks and chocolate are the same as for tea and coffee. A study by researchers at Tel Aviv University looked at 36 young people who suffered from daily headaches. They gradually weaned them off caffeinated soft drinks and managed to cure all headaches in 33 of them.

Caffeinated headache pills

It’s even possible to be addicted to caffeine without consuming any caffeinated food or drink. Several leading brands of pain relief tablets actually contain caffeine. In some cases one tablet has almost the same caffeine content as a cup of instant coffee. It is therefore quite possible for regular pain relief users to get a caffeine withdrawal headache if they stop taking the pills.

Anadin Extra                                 45 mg per tablet 

Anadin Original                              15 mg per tablet

Solpadeine Plus                             30 mg per tablet 

Hedex Extra                                   65 mg per tablet 

Lemsip Max cold and flu capsules   25 mg per capsule 

Alka Seltzer  XS                            40 mg per tablet 

The reason drug manufacturers put caffeine into some of their pain relief products is that it makes pain-relievers up to 40% more effective in treating headaches. Caffeine also helps the body absorb headache medications more quickly, bringing faster relief.

Caffeine cold turkey

According to the Johns Hopkins study it takes 12 to 24 hours for the withdrawal symptoms to set in after stopping caffeine. Symptoms include headaches, fatigue or drowsiness, depression and irritability, difficulty concentrating and flu-like symptoms of nausea, vomiting and muscle pain or stiffness. Peak intensity comes between one and two days, and the symptoms last for two to nine days.  In general, the study found the more caffeine you consumed, the worse the withdrawal symptoms. If you want to give up, the researchers say a gradual step by step reduction will break the addiction without any pain.

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