Caffeine is our favorite drug. But if we miss our fix, it can lead to real headaches in more ways than one.
Caffeine is a stimulant. It quickly enters our brain and blocks the (adenosine) receptors that are responsible for the deadening of brain activity. By blocking the dullness of our brain, we feel a sense of stimulation, focus and subtle euphoria. These feelings can also improve our performance of certain targeted tasks, such as driving a car or staying awake during the whole lesson.
This is the advantage of caffeine. The downside is how we feel when we do not get our usual dose. Because of the expected brain activity after our cup, the low points without them seem longer and deeper.
The other problem is that caffeine is addictive. If we do not get what we are used to, we can feel tired, inattentive, irritable and moody. This is called withdrawal. Many people regularly drink caffeinated drinks to prevent them from feeling this way.
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By far the most common symptom of stopping caffeine is headache. These are usually mild and short-lived, usually only a day or two, although they can sometimes last a week. They usually feel a bit like a tense band wrapped around your head and are sometimes called headaches of tension. However, caffeine withdrawal may also lead to complete migraine in some patients.
Why we get headaches with withdrawal (as well as many other causes) is usually because our face and head is the most active and the most sensitive part of our body. For our brain to know exactly what is happening, the signals it receives from the senses must be perfectly on the spot.
Any distortion of the signal and the message can be lost during the translation or even result in receiving the wrong message. One theory of headache is that our fuzzy brain misinterprets some of the harmless signals it gets from our head and calls it headache.
A certain level of caffeine release would be experienced by perhaps half of all normal tea or coffee drinkers if their normal range of medicines were to be completely closed. The more we drink and the more we drink caffeine, the greater the chance that we experience withdrawal symptoms if we would go without.
However, withdrawal can also occur in people who usually drink just one cup a day and then caffeine. Nor is only three days of continuous coffee drinking sufficient to give you a bad feeling when the coffee is empty.
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Caffeine withdrawal only occurs with abstinence. Small amounts of caffeine (only a quarter of a cup) will keep the headache at bay. Even if the espresso machine is broken and you need a (half-less caffeinated) latte, you will not retreat.
But if you get cold with turkey, a withdrawal headache usually peaks around a day or two after removing all the caffeine from the menu. Withdrawal does not happen within a few hours after the last cup, despite the protests of the regular coffee drinker.
Of course, if withdrawal is really the problem, the remedy is simple. Headache caused by lack of caffeine is quickly and often completely relieved within 30 minutes to an hour of drinking a cup of tea or coffee.
Part of this is the solution and its anticipation. In fact, Australian researchers have found that someone who experiences caffeine confusion experiences a de-caf, but telling them that it is caffeic acid is enough to make them feel better. Of course, this trick will not work if you buy the coffee yourself.
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Surprisingly, caffeine also has some analgesic properties. Simple painkillers such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, aspirin or paracetamol can be more effective if formulated with a little caffeine (about two to three times as much in every dose as in a regular cup of coffee).
For hypnotic "alarm clock" headaches that wake up at night, hangover headaches and some migraine sufferers, a cup of tea or coffee can only be an effective painkiller.
This pain relief is not only because we feel less stressed or less distracted by pain after a cup of tea or coffee. It appears that the same adenosine receptors blocked by caffeine are also involved in the development of headaches and other types of pain.
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More than 90% of all adults drink coffee or tea, take us out of our sleep and provide the revitalizing energy to do the things that have to be done. It is not difficult to imagine the headache without it.
Merlin Thomas, professor of medicine, Monash university
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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