Science Questions

Why do I get headaches when I stop drinking coffee?

Sun, 6th Jan 2008

Part of the show The Science of Addiction


Sam Key asked:

Iím a high school teacher and music teacher in Brisbane, Australia. I really enjoy listening to the podcast version of the programme whilst Iím having a cup of tea or coffee. About a month ago I decided to cut back on my caffeine intake and decided to quit cold turkey. Unfortunately, it was a school day and by lunch time I had a splitting headache and was very moody. My students asked me why I was a bit grumpy and they convinced me to have a cup of coffee at lunchtime and to give up coffee during the holidays. Whatís happening to cause this?


We put this question to Professor Barry Everitt, Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience here Cambridge University.  You can read and listen to an interview with him here.

Well, what happens Ė if youíre going to have an addition this isnít a bad one to have because itís (a) quite trivial and (b) quite easy to relinquish. What happens with people who drink coffee and drink coffee very frequently is that they develop tolerance to the caffeine thatís in the coffee. As they develop tolerance to the caffeine: when the caffeine isnít there they experience discomfort in the form of withdrawal which can be things like a headache and it can be also maybe minor mood changes but sometimes even things like palpitations that come with withdrawal from caffeine. You then take more caffeine and you have to do that more and more frequently until eventually you have a situation where people are drinking vast quantities or coffee and caffeine or tea and caffeine during the day. Then when they suddenly stop and decide to go cold turkey Ė it often happens to people on weekends actually, when they take coffee during the week to stay active at work and then at the weekend they tend to take less. They have headaches and they feel bad. If you just stay with that withdrawal symptom for a couple of days it disappears.


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