How to Wean Off Caffeine

How to Wean Off Caffeine

“Your brain is on fire and caffeine is gasoline.”

My headache specialist said that to me five years ago. After two decades of an on-and-off relationship with caffeine, I’ve barely had any since that headache specialist’s admonition.

Caffeine has pros and cons for people with migraine. It can trigger attacks, but it can also help abort attacks if consumed early enough. It’s also notorious for causing caffeine withdrawal headaches. Caffeine is also one culprit in medication overuse headaches caused by Excedrin, Advil Migraine, and Fioricet.

Some people have no issues with caffeine and migraine, while others can’t touch it. I could never tell if caffeine was hurting or helping in my struggle with chronic migraine. My headache specialist helped me that it did more harm than good for me.

If you’ve seen a doctor for migraine, you’ve probably been told to reduce the amount of caffeine that you drink or eliminate it entirely. While this can be frustrating advice, it’s actually a relatively easy trigger to test for. If you unexpectedly discover caffeine is a problem for you, the migraine relief will likely be worth the short-term frustrations of withdrawal. If you find it’s not a trigger for you, then you’ll no longer have to wonder if it’s helping or hurting you.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, which have a lot in common with those of migraine, can be difficult to bear. The caffeine-withdrawal headache gets the most attention, but other symptoms include:

The headache pain usually begins within 18 hours of stopping caffeine and reaches it’s peak pain about three to six hours after it begins. Most people describe the pain as moderate to severe in intensity (even those who have years of experience with migraine). Drinking a small amount of caffeine relieves the immediate pain within an hour and the headache stop happening within a week of discontinuing caffeine consumption.

Unless you can schedule in a week of severe headaches, you’re best off reducing your caffeine intake slowly. The best approach depends on how much caffeine you’re consuming when you decide to stop and how sensitive you are to the effects of caffeine.

If you only drink one or two cups of caffeine a day, slowly reduce the amount you drink each day over two weeks. At the end of the first week, drink half what you did at the start of the week; after the last day of the second week, stop drinking the caffeinated beverage altogether.

For higher levels of caffeine try reducing the total amount by a third each week for three weeks. If you drink a ton of caffeine, reducing the amount by a quarter each week for four weeks might be better for you.

If you develop unbearable caffeine withdrawal symptoms while you’re weaning off, you’ll probably need just a small amount—maybe a tablespoon—of a caffeinated drink to stop the symptoms. Then adjust your next day’s intake accordingly.

As with all things migraine, your exact decaffeination schedule will depend on your own body.

Caffeine withdrawal can be frustrating and tedious, but it’s worth a try for everyone with migraine. At worst, you’ll find it’s not a trigger for you and will be able to cross it off the long list of possible culprits. At best, you’ll get some relief when you stop dousing the fire with gasoline.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

View Comments (4)
  • Annelies
    3 years ago

    I don’t know if my migraines are caused by caffeine. I know that, when I don’t drink caffeine in the morning, I will have a migraine around 11am. I drink a lot of caffeine during the day as well. Would you recommend to completely stop drinking caffeine? Or should I try to drink only one cup in the morning? Any advice is welcome.

  • Annelies
    3 years ago

    Thanks for the advice! I tried to not drink coffee yesterday, and of course I ended up with a terrible migraine. So from now on, I will limit my cups of coffee slowly. I hope it will help!

  • Kerrie Smyres moderator author
    3 years ago

    Annelies, the only way to really tell if something is a trigger is to stop it completely and go without it for a while (two months is the typical recommended time period). Be sure to wean off it slowly, though—you drink enough that stopping cold turkey would probably be horrible. In case you’re worried about needing caffeine to stay alert, many people find that after stopping caffeine they are actually more alert during the day and no longer feel like they need it.

    Best wishes. Please let us know how it goes.

    Take care,
    Kerrie

  • AmandaBerlin
    3 years ago

    Caffeine causes problems for me. It took me a long time to realize this, and I don’t think it’s the main trigger (like, say, direct sunlight in my eyes) but it’s indirect: I get jittery and very anxious, which in turn sometimes causes me panic attacks with heart racing and I feel like I can’t breathe. Sometimes, I start shaking when I have those “attacks” and sometimes I found they would cause ocular migraines (or vice versa, the migraine would cause the panic attack and shaking).

    In any case, caffeine was not helping so I cut out caffeine at the end of last year and now only drink decaf. I can’t just drink herbal tea because I’m very addicted to the coffee taste, but I found out that I don’t need the caffeine anymore. I occasionally have a few sips of regular or a half-caf though I don’t “need” it like I used to. This really helped with anxiety and my ability to sleep properly and soundly. When people tell me about their headaches, insomnia, restless sleep, anxiety, etc it’s the very first thing I recommend: cut back on the caffeine and get on a decent sleeping schedule.

    Knock on wood, I haven’t had a major episode (ocular migraines from hell) since I did this. Last summer I stopped drinking wine (or really any alcohol beyond a glass of champagne or beer once in a blue moon) and started taking vitamins and probiotics… but it wasn’t until I kicked the caffeine that I finally saw major results.

    Mind you, it was difficult at first – the headaches weren’t so bad, but I REALLY wanted that caffeine boost, plus I hated the taste of decaf. Turns out, if you can afford to order a fancy decaf drink (a latte or cappuccino), you soon stop noticing it’s decaf…

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