Coffee is your friend—most of the time.
But according to a study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Medicine, there is a limit to how much caffeine we should be consuming on a day-to-day basis, particularly for those prone to migraines.
According to the study’s findings, drinking three or more caffeinated beverages a day was linked to a much higher likelihood of experiencing a migraine that day or the following day among participants with periodic migraine headaches. Consuming just one or two drinks with caffeine per day, however, was not associated with migraines.
“Despite the high prevalence of migraine and often debilitating symptoms, effective migraine prevention remains elusive for many patients,” says Principal Investigator Suzanne M. Bertisch, MD, MPH, of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Harvard Medical School. “This study was a novel opportunity to examine the short-term effects of daily caffeinated beverage intake on the risk of migraine headaches. Interestingly, despite some patients with episodic migraine thinking they need to avoid caffeine, we found that drinking one to two servings/day was not associated with higher risk of headache.”
The research was conducted on 98 adults who had been diagnosed with episodic migraines, which means they tend to have migraine headaches between two and 15 times per month. Participants filled out twice-daily surveys for six weeks to report both their caffeine consumption (including coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks) and whether or not they experienced a migraine headache before or after. The researchers then compared each participant’s incidences of migraines on days that they consumed caffeine with reports of migraines on the days they did not consume caffeine, and found that they were far more likely to have a headache on days they drank three or more caffeinated beverages versus days they didn’t consume any caffeine.
There was no link between migraine headache and consumption of one or two caffeinated beverages, except for those who almost never have caffeine. (In this case, one to two servings of caffeine did increase their chances of having a migraine that day.) The authors even took into account other factors that could trigger migraines, including stress, exercise, alcohol consumption, depressive symptoms, and sleep deprivation, and their conclusions held up.
Surprisingly, this is one of the first rigorous studies to examine the corelation between migraine headaches and caffeine consumption.
“While some potential triggers—such as lack of sleep—may only increase migraine risk, the role of caffeine is particularly complex, because it may trigger an attack but also helps control symptoms,” says Elizabeth Mostofsky, ScD, an investigator in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit and a member of the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Caffeine’s impact depends both on dose and on frequency, but because there have been few prospective studies on the immediate risk of migraine headaches following caffeinated beverage intake, there is limited evidence to formulate dietary recommendations for people with migraines.”
If you’re looking to cut back on your coffee consumption, here are a few healthy alternatives to try.