Why Skipping Your Caffeine Gives You A Horrible Headache

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Whether you skipped your morning latte because your train was late or because this is actually, definitely, for real the time you quit drinking so much coffee (or so you're telling yourself) is totally your business — as is the skull-shattering headache you're about to get in a few hours. According to a recent episode of SciShow, that pain is all thanks to the way your brain compensates for caffeine's effects, meaning you'll undoubtedly be fighting an uphill battle if you're trying to quit or if you just miss out on a "dose" of the coffee you've come to rely upon.
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First off, you can absolutely become dependent on caffeine if you have it every day. And once you are dependent, not getting that morning cup of coffee can leave you with some nasty withdrawal symptoms. Those include fatigue, irritability, and anxiety, as well as the classic headache.
As the video explains, that's all because caffeine binds to receptors in your brain that are normally occupied by a neurotransmitter called adenosine. Without caffeine, adenosine calms you down. But if caffeine is blocking those receptors, you don't feel sleepy.
To compensate for caffeine's blocking effects, your brain will start to create more adenosine receptors over time. So, if you've been a regular coffee drinker for years and suddenly decide to quit, you won't just feel the normal level of sleepy — you'll be contending with all of those extra adenosine receptors, meaning you'll end up with an unending desire to just go back to sleep and, yes, an awful headache.
So why on earth would anyone want to stop drinking coffee with the threat of withdrawal hanging over our heads? For one thing, those who drink more than the recommended amount of caffeine (no more than four or five cups of coffee per day, depending on how strong they are) may have some unpleasant side effects, such as chronic insomnia. And some of us are simply fed up with having to worry about the withdrawal symptoms at all and are willing to endure a few days of pain to be free of it completely. But if you're dependent on a reasonable amount of caffeine and aren't feeling any other nasty side effects from the habit, it's not necessarily harmful. And some research suggests there may even be health benefits from drinking coffee.
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Still, it's up to you if you want to cut back — and sadly, other than giving in and having some caffeine, there's not much you can do about a caffeine withdrawal headache in the moment. Instead of going cold turkey, you can also try to reduce the amount of coffee you drink by one cup every few days or swap out your go-to caffeinated beverage for decaf or tea. Slowly easing off caffeine may help you avoid the most painful withdrawal symptoms. Either way, you can take some solace in the fact that the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal really only last a few days. Then you'll be back to your minimally-caffeinated self.
To learn more about the way caffeine withdrawal affects your brain, check out the full video below.
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