For some migraine-sufferers, there may be a sweet spot for caffeine consumption.

By Allie Strickler
August 09, 2019
African woman in pink outfit sitting at home and drinking coffee

Migraines are painful enough as it is. But for some people, coffee and migraines can be an especially agonizing combination. ICYDK, coffee is considered one of the most common dietary triggers for migraines, according to the American Journal of Managed Care.

But researchers potentially have some good news for migraine-sufferers who still *need* that daily cup of coffee to survive: Sipping one or two caffeinated drinks per day isn't always linked with a higher risk of migraines, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Medicine. (Related: How Much Coffee Is Too Much?)

Researchers asked nearly 100 adults with episodic migraines (meaning people who experience zero to 14 migraines per month) to keep a diary of their caffeine intake for six weeks. Each morning and night, participants logged their coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, etc., plus details about any migraines they experienced during that time (including onset, duration, intensity, and medications used to treat their symptoms), as well as information about other common migraine triggers, like alcohol consumption, stress, sleeping patterns, and menstrual cycles.

After analyzing the participants' notes, researchers found some key differences between migraine-sufferers who regularly drink caffeine and those who rarely consume it. On average, those who had one to two caffeinated drinks in a day didn't experience more migraines than they did on days when they drank no caffeine. It was only when these participants drank three or more caffeinated beverages in one day that the risk of a migraine appeared to increase. This isn't to say they didn't have migraines at all when drinking one to two caffeinated beverages in a day. Rather, their migraines were no more frequent during those days compared to days when they didn't drink any caffeine. (Here's how to tell the difference between a headache and a migraine.)

As for participants who didn't regularly consume caffeine, "even one to two servings increased the odds of having a headache that day," according to a press release. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings, study author Suzanne Bertisch, M.D., M.P.H., said in a statement.

Woman lying on sofa with pile of pillows over her head
Credit: Muriel de Seze/Getty Images

While this study sheds more light on the connection between caffeine and migraines, the research had a few limitations. For instance, it's not clear whether the findings apply to both people with episodic migraines and those with chronic migraines (characterized by 15 or more headaches per month). Plus, diaries aren't exactly the most reliable measure, since people don't always remember everything they ate, drank, or experienced on any given day.

Another major constraint: The researchers only asked participants to log the number of caffeinated drinks they had per day, which means the amount of actual caffeine consumed is a bit of a mystery. "One serving of caffeine is typically defined as eight ounces or one cup of caffeinated coffee, six ounces of tea, a 12-ounce can of soda and a 2-ounce can of an energy drink," study author Elizabeth Mostofsky, Sc.D., clarified in a statement. "Those servings contain anywhere from 25 to 150 milligrams of caffeine, so we cannot quantify the amount of caffeine that is associated with a heightened risk of migraine." (Related: Are Energy Drinks Really That Bad for Your Health?)

Caffeine clearly plays a "complex" role when it comes to migraine risk, added Mostofsky. "It may trigger an attack but [it] also helps control symptoms," she explained. For example, many migraine-sufferers use Excedrin—which contains aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine—to manage their symptoms.

Caffeine's effects on migraine-sufferers largely depend on dose and frequency, said Mostofsky. But the truth is, there's limited scientific evidence exploring the connection between caffeine and migraine risk, which makes it that much harder for migraine-sufferers to suss out their pain triggers.

Bottom line: There's no one-size-fits-all rule on caffeine consumption for people with migraines—or frankly, anyone. Research has found both positive and negative health effects related to caffeine.

"Caffeine can be both helpful and harmful depending on the individual," says NavNirat Nibber, N.D., medical advisor at Advanced Orthomolecular Research. "In many cases, it can help increase circulation and is thought to improve the effects of many common over-the-counter medications for migraines. However, there is a subset of people who have the opposite reaction."

The best way to find out if caffeine will alleviate or trigger your migraines? Talk to your doctor, who can help you track and manage your symptoms effectively. In the meantime, treat yourself to any of these migraine-recovery foods the next time a headache hits.