Caffeine is known as the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world. Although caffeine is most often associated with a strong cup of coffee, it is also found in tea, energy drinks, soda, and chocolate. It is also a common ingredient in over-the-counter medicines including cold and flu remedies and headache treatments.
This is something of a paradox, since caffeine is known to cause headaches when taken in excess or when it is stopped suddenly after regular use. So, how can something which is frequently used to treat headaches also cause them?
In this article, we aim to uncover the answer to this perplexing question. We also look at whether cannabis could help to treat caffeine headaches; and if so, how.
Caffeine and Headaches
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. It works by interrupting the action of a chemical called adenosine in the brain. Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it calms the nervous system to cause drowsiness and promote sleep. By preventing adenosine from working as it should, caffeine makes you feel more awake, alert, energetic and focused.
It is for this reason that caffeine has been a staple of so many different cultures for centuries. Its ability to boost performance and energy has made it a highly desirable substance across the entire globe.
However, when taken in excess, caffeine can cause side effects. The most common caffeine side effects include:
- Increased heart rate
Regular caffeine consumption can also lead to physical and psychological dependence. If you consume a lot of caffeine and suddenly stop, you could suffer from withdrawal symptoms which are not dissimilar to the symptoms listed above. Other symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include:
- Changes in blood pressure
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle or joint pain
- Abdominal pain
These symptoms generally start 12–24 hours after caffeine is stopped, peak at 20–51 hours, and last as long as 2–9 days.
Both excessive caffeine consumption and caffeine withdrawal can cause headaches, a side effect which is estimated to affect as many as 50% of people who suddenly reduce their caffeine intake.
However, in low doses, caffeine could help to relieve headaches, too. It is a common ingredient in many over-the-counter painkillers, usually in combination with acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen. Various studies have found that caffeine improves the efficacy of these preparations when used responsibly and in moderation.
Still, you can always have too much of a good thing. When these medications are taken regularly, they can cause something known as ‘rebound headaches.’ That’s right, taking too many headache pills can give you a headache. Because of this, experts recommend that these drugs are only taken 2–3 days each week at most.
Why Does Caffeine Cause Headaches?
The reason that caffeine can both cause and relieve headaches is the effect it has on the blood vessels. When caffeine binds to adenosine receptors in the body, one side effect is that the blood vessels dilate, allowing blood to flow through them more freely. However, in frequent caffeine users, this effect may actually be reversed.
Since abnormal dilation and constriction of blood vessels is thought to be a factor in certain types of headache and migraine, it makes perfect sense that caffeine has a part to play in both causing and treating these conditions.
So, how much caffeine is too much?
The maximum safe dose of caffeine is approximately 400 mg daily. That’s equivalent to two energy drinks, four cups of coffee, or ten cans of soda. The average American is thought to consume around 280mg a day, but it’s easy to see how you could inadvertently get carried away!
Cannabis for Headaches
Cannabis is another psychoactive substance which may be useful in the treatment of headaches. The herb has an extensive history as a remedy for various painful conditions and was widely used right up until the Marihuana Tax Act effectively outlawed its use in 1937.
One of the earliest records of cannabis as a headache treatment comes from Assyrian manuscripts written in the second millennium BCE, where it was recommended as a remedy to “bind the temples.”
Marijuana was also traditionally used as a headache remedy in ancient India, Arabia, and Persia. Even European herbalists recognized its benefits from the middle ages right up until the early 20th century, the time when public opinion of the plant turned sour.
Now people are finally beginning to realize that marijuana is not the demon herb it was once portrayed as, it is enjoying a resurgence as a natural medicine with a wide range of clinical applications.
Although there are currently no full-scale clinical trials specifically on cannabis for headaches, a number of case studies and reports indicate that it could offer relief from both headaches and migraines. One theory on how it does this is through the endocannabinoid system.
The Endocannabinoid System and Headaches
The endocannabinoid system is a collection of chemicals called endocannabinoids and the receptors into which they are designed to fit. When they bind with these receptors, endocannabinoids have a powerful influence over your body and mind including your circulatory system and nervous system.
In your circulatory system, endocannabinoids control the dilation and constriction of blood vessels. In this sense, these chemicals have a somewhat similar action to caffeine.
In your nervous system, endocannabinoids alter the release of certain neurotransmitters, affecting your mood, appetite, and perception of pain.
Although, even now, we still do not have a complete understanding of the relationship between the endocannabinoid system and headaches, it has been suggested that people who suffer from frequent headaches or migraines may have an endocannabinoid deficiency. This is where cannabis comes in.
The phytocannabinoids in cannabis such as THC and CBD can bind with your endocannabinoid receptors much as your endocannabinoids can. This means that they should have an influence over the same systems, and indeed, cannabis does have an effect on blood vessels and neurotransmitters alike.
More research is needed to ascertain precisely how cannabis works for headaches, but it seems that it does, for some people at least.
How to Use Cannabis for Caffeine Headaches
There are three ways that marijuana could potentially help with caffeine headaches.
Firstly, if you are suffering from caffeine withdrawals, it could help to relieve headaches as well as other symptoms including nausea, anxiety, and muscle/joint pain. The best strains for this situation are those which offer a generous dose of CBD alongside their THC content. Some examples of high CBD strains include Harlequin and ACDC.
Secondly, if you want to cut down your caffeine consumption but need an alternative pick-me-up, certain cannabis strains could help. In this case, you will want to select a strain with uplifting, energizing effects, such as Sour Diesel or Green Crack.
If you have decided to reduce your caffeine intake, it is recommended that you do so gradually in order to minimize your risk of withdrawal symptoms. Decreasing your caffeine by around 25% each week should help.
Finally, marijuana could help if you suffer from regular headaches or migraines and want to stop using caffeine-containing painkillers. The herb may allow you to wean yourself off these medications while still keeping your symptoms under control. Some of the best strains for headaches and migraines include OG Kush, White Widow, and Northern Lights.
As well as choosing the right strain, it is also important to consider how you consume your cannabis in order to get the most benefit.
If you need fast-acting relief from sudden onset headaches, smoking or vaping is your best bet as the effects of these methods kick in almost immediately. When you use cannabis orally with edibles, oils, or tinctures, the effects come on much more slowly. However, they also last longer, meaning that these methods may be more suitable for long-lasting relief or prevention.
Of course, marijuana also has its own list of possible side effects, the most common being dry mouth, dry eyes, dizziness, anxiety, and paranoia.
The last thing you need is to swap caffeine for cannabis and end up suffering in a completely different way. Therefore, it important to weigh up the potential risks and benefits of both and choose the one that will offer the most relief while causing the least harm.
Can Cannabis Help Treat Caffeine Headaches? Final Thoughts
Although cannabis may help to prevent and relieve caffeine headaches, you could be in danger of merely replacing one substance with another if you do not use it responsibly. Furthermore, if you were to light up a joint every time you wanted a coffee, you could find yourself in trouble at work, or just incapable of getting anything done.
Therefore, marijuana is probably more suitable as a short-term solution to caffeine withdrawal symptoms, rather than something to replace your morning coffee in the long-run.
If you suffer are thinking about using cannabis to cut down on your regular painkillers and treat chronic headaches or migraines, we advise you to talk to a doctor specializing in medical marijuana first. They will guide you in making the switch safely and help you to identify the right dosage and method of consumption for you.