Updated 16 August 2019

Suffering from migraines? You might want to curb the coffee

According to new research, coffee and other caffeinated beverages are definitely linked to the triggering of migraine headaches.

Love your coffee but prone to migraines? New research published in The American Journal of Medicine has some bad news if two cups of coffee are not nearly enough for you.

The recent study shows that drinking three or more servings of caffeinated beverages a day is associated with the onset of a migraine headache the same day or the following day.

The study results are consistent, even when taking daily factors such as alcohol intake, stress, sleep, physical activity and menstruation cycles into account. The only variation stemmed from the use of oral contraceptive use, according to the news release.

"Based on our study, drinking one or two caffeinated beverages in a day does not appear to be linked to developing a migraine headache. However, three or more servings may be associated with higher odds of developing a headache," stated lead investigator Elizabeth Mostofsky, ScD, Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Department of Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA in the news release.

A migraine differs from any other headache in the sense that it is extremely debilitating and can be associated with other symptoms such as light- and noise sensitivity, nausea and vomiting.

What is a migraine?

About 12% of people get a migraine headache at some stage in their life, which translates to over a billion people worldwide. In South Africa alone, six million out of 50 million people suffer from regular migraines.

Migraine does not discriminate and the percentage is constant among all races, genders, cultures and income groups.

According to the news release, there are widespread anecdotal beliefs that coffee may trigger migraine headaches, but there is limited scientific evidence that this is definitely a factor.

The study looked at data from 98 adults who suffer from episodic migraines. The study participants recorded their caffeine intake and other lifestyle factors for six weeks, twice daily and also reported on the timing and characteristics of their migraines.

What did the study entail?

The study compared each participant's migraines on days they consumed caffeinated beverages to the incidence of migraines on days they did not.

The data showed that participants usually experienced an average of five headaches a month – 66% of the subjects consumed one or two caffeinated beverages per day and 12% three or more.

During the six-week study period, subjects experienced an average of 8.4 headaches. All reported having caffeinated beverages on at least one day during the study, with an average of 7.9 servings per week.

The data suggests that the impact of caffeinated beverage was only significant when participants had three or more drinks that day, and those who drank between one and two drinks per day didn’t experience higher risks of migraine.

"To date, there have been few prospective studies on the immediate risk of migraine headaches with daily changes in caffeinated beverage intake. Our study was unique in that we captured detailed daily information on caffeine, headache and other factors of interest for six weeks," said Suzanne M. Bertisch, MD, MPH, principal investigator of the study, of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

More research is needed to determine the exact potential effect of caffeine paired with other lifestyle factors such as sleep, anxiety and environmental factors such as the weather. 

Image credit: iStock 


Ask the Expert

Headache expert

Dr Elliot Shevel is a South African migraine surgery pioneer and the founder and medical director of The Headache Clinic in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, South Africa. The Headache Clinic is a multidisciplinary practice dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of Primary Headaches and Migraines. Dr Shevel is also the main author of all scientific publications generated by his team. He recently won a high level science debate in which he was able to prove that the current migraine diagnosis and classification is not based on data. Tertiary Education - Dr Shevel holds both Dental and Medical degrees, and practises as a specialist Maxillo-facial and Oral Surgeon. Follow the Headache Clinic on Twitter@HeadacheClinic.

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