One cup, two cups, three cups, four… could there be a reason not to have more?
More coffee that is! Well, not to be the bearer of bad news, but in this world, one can have too much of just about anything, and coffee is no exception. Nervous legs, a racing heart, a hard time getting to sleep, and a seemingly endless series of journeys to the bathroom - these are the hazards awaiting any inexperienced coffee drinker foolhardy enough to drink an entire pot.
But perhaps the most legendary of all the side effects of coffee is the nefarious coffee headache. In today’s article, we will describe the symptoms of the caffeine headache, explore the anatomical mechanisms behind it, and discuss the power of L-theanine to mitigate it.
Too Much Coffee
First of all, we have to clarify that there are two different kinds of coffee headaches. The first is a headache brought about by too high of a dose of caffeine. The second is a headache brought about by the withdrawals that occur when a regular coffee drinker forgoes their usual morning cup. Today we’ll be discussing the former.
In the first case, the headache has everything to do with the quantity of coffee consumed. The FDA insists that up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is a safe dose. This figure translates to about four or five cups of coffee - depending, of course, on how strong the brew is and how big the cup is!
That said, these numbers don’t figure in any of the likely personal variables known to make someone more or less sensitive to caffeine. Not only do weight and sex play a role, but even genetics can decide an individual’s personal tolerance to the negative effects of caffeine.
Furthermore, pre-existing medical conditions and other medications can have an enormous impact on someone’s metabolic response to their morning coffee. Although moderate doses of caffeine are reported to be helpful for their condition, migraine sufferers in particular are likely to experience an unpleasant day of migraines when taking more than one or two cups of coffee (or any other caffeinated beverage). With this many factors in play, there’s no hard statistic for how much coffee is too much coffee.
Which means that each individual coffee drinker will have to listen to their own bodies to decide for themselves how much is too much. To gauge whether or not a headache is coffee related, one can check in with themselves and see if they notice any other symptoms of excessive caffeine consumption.
An unusually frequent and almost uncontrollable need to urinate is a known symptom, as caffeine acts directly on the smooth muscle of the bladder. Irritability and a rapid heart rate can also indicate that one has had too much coffee, as caffeine is known to release the fight-or-flight hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine into the bloodstream. And caffeine sends large amounts of energy into the musculoskeletal system, causing uncomfortable muscle twitching at higher doses. If any of these other symptoms are present, then the headache in question may well be caffeine-induced.
Okay, we’ve made certain that the headache in question is definitely a coffee headache. But we can’t help but be curious: when the headache strikes, what exactly is taking place inside our bodies?
The Anatomy of a Coffee Headache
So how is it that coffee causes these headaches? Caffeine is known to be a cerebral vasoconstrictor, meaning that it contracts the vessels that supply blood to the brain and increases blood pressure in the head. It accomplishes this by antagonizing adenosine receptors.
What does that mean? Well, adenosine is the amino acid responsible for tiredness (among other things). Caffeine keeps coffee drinkers awake by antagonizing - or blocking - adenosine receptors in the brain, thereby preventing the coffee drinker from feeling tired. However, adenosine is also responsible for vasodilation - a.k.a. widening the blood vessels. So when caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors to prevent tiredness, it’s also preventing vasodilation.
But wait! Some scientists point out that caffeine is also a vasodilator. How can it possibly be both?
One possible (and likely) explanation is that caffeine appears to have a different effect on different parts of the body. While caffeine functions as a vasodilator in the extremities, it has a vasoconstrictive effect on core parts of the body such as the brachial artery and the brain.
But back to the headache. Not only does caffeine squeeze the blood vessels that service the brain, but it increases blood pressure, thereby forcing more blood through capillaries that are already uncomfortably tight. It does this by stimulating the pituitary gland - enough so that the brain suspects something urgent might be going on - which then causes the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and norepinephrine into the bloodstream (epinephrine, by the way, is also known by a more familiar name: adrenaline, the agent of the fight-or-fight response).
Wow, all of that sounds absolutely stressful. A fight-or-flight response and a coffee headache? No, thank you! If only there was a solution to this problem.
Well, luckily for all of us, there is.
Caffeine Without the Headache
The coffee headache is a problem that affects hundreds of millions of people all over the world. Here in America, 70% of adults guzzle coffee on a weekly basis, and two out of three adults drink at least one cup of coffee every single day!
And that’s just in the USA, where the average coffee drinker helps themselves to at least three cups a day. What about Italy, home of the latte and cappuccino? Or Ethiopia, birthplace of Coffee arabica? Or Brazil, the world’s top producer and exporter of coffee beans? Clearly, the coffee headache is a problem that affects humans the world over.
So how is the worker on the go supposed to get the caffeine they need without inadvertently giving themselves a productivity-wrecking headache?
The secret is L-theanine. In chemistry, L-theanine and caffeine are a similar variety of amino acid called a xanthine. The two are naturally occurring together in green, black, or white tea. Coffee, on the other hand, has caffeine but no L-theanine.
But what does L-theanine do that’s so special? Simply put, it acts as a counter-balance to some of the more unpleasant qualities of caffeine. When it comes to headaches, L-theanine acts as a vasodilator to mediate the vasoconstriction from caffeine.
So how does it accomplish this? By encouraging the endothelial cells in the body to produce more nitric oxide, of course! Okay, a little translation is in order.
First, endothelial cells are the cells that line every part of the human circulatory system, from the tiniest capillaries all the way to the heart itself. These cells do a lot for us, including contracting or expanding the blood vessels. So how do they know when to get tighter and when to loosen up? They’re waiting for a signal.
That signal can come from a lot of different places, but today we’ll focus on two molecules. The first one is cortisol, the stress hormone, which encourages the blood vessels to contract. Think of how you feel when you’re stressed out. Do you relax when under pressure? Or do you tighten up? That’s right, cortisol (the stress hormone) tells the blood vessels to tighten up. So who sends the message to loosen up? That would be the messenger molecule nitric oxide (or NO, as in NO! I am NOT going to let this bother me today!). That brings us back to L-theanine. L-theanine tells the endothelial cells to create NO, and then the NO turns right around and tells those endothelial cells to dilate/relax.
When L-theanine and caffeine are combined, it’s the vasodilatory powers of L-theanine that carry the day. Those who take them as a combo will receive the best of both worlds: the stimulation of caffeine plus vasodilation and a decrease in blood pressure courtesy of L-theanine. That means caffeine without the headache!
So where can we find caffeine and L-theanine in the same beverage? As stated above, tea is the most common source of both but is weaker in strength than what many coffee drinkers prefer.
However, there’s another option: Proper Wild. Made with a strong dose of green tea extract, Proper Wild offers twice the caffeine content of green tea combined with fifteen times the L-theanine! With an assortment of tasty flavors to pick from and a bottle that fits in the palm of your hand, Proper Wild Clean All Day Energy shots are the delicious choice for a busy work day. No hassle and no headache!