How To Avoid Those Rebound Headaches
September 14, 2010 by Dr. Mark Wiley
The other day a patient emailed me complaining of the “worst headache she’d ever had.” On my recommendation she attempted to stop drinking coffee. But the first day she got such a horrible headache she had to leave work and could not attend a function later that evening. She asked why, if coffee was bad for you, she became ill when she stopped drinking it?
The answer is that her body responded to the lack of the daily stimulus that it was accustomed to receiving. The headache was a rebound from the lack of coffee/caffeine consumption that it was relying on for daily energy and stimulation.
What generally happens, especially with consumers of caffeinated, sugar-laden and alcoholic beverages, is a vicious cycle of needing more and more to prevent the side effects of rebounding. Rebounding is the pain and other symptoms people feel when their body is trying to return to homeostasis by detoxing the harmful chemicals from the system. Here’s how the problem magnifies with coffee, as an example.
You are tired and drink coffee to perk up. Yet by late afternoon another cup is needed to remain awake. However, this cup keeps you up at night and makes it difficult for you to wake up in the morning. So, the next day or week you find yourself drinking two cups in the morning and one in the afternoon and/or early evening.
This vicious cycle is made worse by coffee’s diuretic action, which causes excess perspiration and urination, leading to dehydration. Extended dehydration leads to constipation which, in an effort to move the bowels, you drink more coffee.
This remedy may work for a while, but then your intestines become so dry that days pass between bowel movements. During this time toxins build up, leach back into the bloodstream and spread in the body. The result: headaches, aches and pains, fatigue, stiffness and red and irritated eyes. All of these symptoms are side effects of the rebound effect.
Generally, when someone comes to me for health advice at such a time, I tell them to stop drinking coffee. And they say, “I am so tired. If I don’t drink coffee I have no energy. And when I don’t drink, then I get a headache and I can’t go to the bathroom.”
They are right to a point: The caffeine is giving them energy but at the same time it is also sapping their energy.
Caffeine and sugar drinks offer the body a false or “empty” energy. It is not real. So when the fake energetic means of moving through the day drops out (you feel like crashing), the body returns to its normal state. But that normal state is one that is worn out and exhausted, since its energy depleted long ago and it has been moving along on legal yet addictive stimulants. It’s akin to a car whose battery is nearly dead yet the car is being towed from place to place. As a result of the constant “towing” of the body at the stimulation of coffee (for example) it starts to cry out in pain.
The body says, “I hurt. I am exhausted. I am dehydrated. My nerves are inflamed.”
As the body is normalized by detoxing and returning to homeostasis (balance) you feel the pain, the throbbing, the aches the headaches that were always there but just hidden under the stimulant effects of the coffee (or soda or alcohol or drugs or cigarettes).
Rebound pain and rebound headaches are so-named because they occur as the body “rebounds” from over-consumption or withdrawal from too many analgesics or prescription medications, coffee or caffeinated soft drinks, elevated adrenaline levels, sleep disorders and so on.
Like migraine and cluster headaches, rebound headaches are vascular in nature and characterized by steady pounding or throbbing on both sides of the head caused by constricting and dilating blood vessels. This type of vascular headache is in theory the easiest to prevent, but since it is directly triggered by poor lifestyle choices, it may be the most difficult to eliminate.
In essence, rebound headaches are a recuperative measure by the body that is telling you something is wrong and is forcing rest and a change in behavior by way of head pain. They occur commonly as a result of toxic build-up of medication, alcohol or caffeine in the system, as well as from prolonged periods of physically draining activity, such as cramming for finals or that wild 72-hour weekend party.
The best way to avoid rebound headaches, then, is to refrain from daily over-stimulation: Late nights and early mornings, coffee all day, drinking all night, excessive partying, hours and hours of studying and too much fat or sugar in the diet.
The rebound pain (and sometimes accompanying stupor) only comes after the heightened activity is removed and the body has to adjust back to normal. It is better to slowly wean off coffee — or stimulant drinks and foods and recreational drugs — than try to cut them out cold turkey.
Regarding coffee, if you drink three cups a day, reduce to two for a day or two. If you can manage, drop down to one cup and one cup of half-caffeine/half-decaf. It is important to find a weaning “formula” that you can manage and that works for you over a short period of time.
And when the rebound headaches come, usually a small dose of the item (a few sips of coffee, for example), two glasses of water, a hot shower and rest will return the body to a livable state until the next day when it has rebalanced itself again.
— Dr. Mark Wiley