Does coffee or caffeine give you a migraine attack? This post goes into details on why caffeine should be avoided on a migraine diet, and which types of decaf coffee are acceptable for those with migraine. If you get a coffee migraines, this is the post for you!
Vestibular Migraine & Coffee
If you have vestibular migraine or a vestibular disorder, you should consider giving up caffeine. In fact, if you haven’t yet, you probably aren’t doing yourself any favors. Tough love over here, but I promise I have your best interest at heart. Over the years I slowly became one of those everyday coffee people. It didn’t help that we had a Starbucks in our office and it was my one opportunity to get away from my desk. Not to mention my husband likes to consider himself a coffee connoisseur, which I would probably replace the word "connoisseur" with "addict"…but that’s neither here nor there.
Coffee has truly turned into a way of life now. It’s a fun, quick way to meet up with friends, or a good opportunity for networking. It’s frankly just a nice way to spend a Saturday morning. Now when people ask me to meet for coffee I literally don’t know what to do with myself. Do I explain my migraine diet? Do I just go and have water? Do I just sit there and try to figure out something to do with my hands?
I have some alternatives for you that aren’t just tea! In fact, tea can be a huge trigger for me as well. In the beginning of my vestibular migraine journey, I would even have an issue with naturally decaffeinated chamomile teas. But let’s start with why coffee should be one of the first migraine triggers you give up.
How Caffeine Affects Migraine
You may think caffeine is a good migraine fix. Why not? It’s on Excedrin “Migraine”. I’ve even seen it recommended on Pinterest posts for “curing a migraine”, which is the holy grail of self help/cooking ideas. This is because caffeine has a stimulant effect that opens up blood vessels in your brain, allowing for some relief of the headache. Although it can be an effective abortive when used very sparingly, unfortunately it’s not a permanent cure. Using Excedrin for every migraine or drinking coffee can even lead to rebound headaches.
There’s still conflicting information on this subject, which is understandable considering the great dependency on caffeine that we have. In my personal opinion, people make excuses to have it around because they are so addicted to it, it’s unimaginable to give up. In my case, I was so desperate to feel normal again, I gave up all my favorite things like aged cheese, red wine, and even my morning latte.
At first I switched to regular decaf, thinking I was doing something good for myself, but my vestibular migraine symptoms like dizziness would increase after each cup of coffee. I found out that there’s still a decent amount of caffeine in most decaf coffees and many of them are processed with chemicals, also leaving a funky aftertaste. The chemical solvents used can leave a residue on the beans, and decaf coffees are only regulated to be 97% caffeine free by the USDA. A typical cup of coffee contains between 70-140mg of caffeine, whereas regular decaf can only contain 0-7mg. It may not sound like a large amount, but if you already have a sensitive brain it can trigger symptoms almost immediately.
The Science Behind Decaf Coffee
Coffee is decaffeinated using 4 different methods, all performed before roasting while the bean is still green. Water, by itself, cannot decaffeinate the bean without washing away other soluble substances like sugar and protein. A decaffeinating agent must be added to aide in the process. There are 4 different agents used: activated charcoal and CO2 being natural, and methylene chloride and ethyl acetate being chemical solvents.
Something really interesting that I learned from this article, is that ethyl acetate is considered a more “natural” solvent because it can be found organically in ripening fruits. This raised a red flag for me as ripening fruits can be a powerful migraine trigger for some. Because this solvent can be found in nature, producers are allowed to mark the bags as “naturally decaffeinated”, even though the chemical used is actually synthetic. All of this to say that even with your coffee you should check your labels! Just because one says “naturally decaffeinated” or “water processed” does not mean it’s actually Swiss Water Processed or does not contain chemical solvents.
Swiss Water Process
Swiss water process coffee was invented in the 1930’s and brought to the market in the 1980’s. The SWP method relies on osmosis to decaffeinate the beans. Beans are first soaked in very hot water to remove the caffeine, then the water is passed through an activated charcoal filter. Larger caffeine molecules are caught in the filter and the flavors we discussed before are allowed to pass through. The caffeine free beans are then discarded and the flavored water that passed through is used to soak the next batch of beans being decaffeinated, adding the rich flavor. Cool, right?
Swiss Water Process coffee is highly regulated, consistently audited to make sure it is 99.9% caffeine free. You’ll find it used most often with organic coffees. To check and see if you have a good brand near you, try this store locator. I was able to find certified local coffee shops near my home so I don’t always have to brew a cup myself. It's a great way to avoid a coffee migraine!
CO2 Processed Coffee
CO2 process, the other chemical solvent free process, also starts by soaking the beans, but then places them in a stainless steel container to extract the caffeine using liquid CO2. Because it is lower cost than Swiss Water Process, you’ll find this method most often used in large batch, commercial grade coffees.
Other Coffee Alternatives
There are a lot of natural “coffee” blends out there that have nothing to do with beans, and more to do with roots. Chicory root has a dark and deep flavor that many describe as nutty. When coffee was scarce in the 18th century France, chicory was used as a replacement, and continued to be added to coffee in the 19th century as it was believed to have health benefits. You’ll still find chicory blended coffee in places like Cafe du Monde.
Chicory is often added with other natural additions like dandelion or carob for added flavor. Carob is a gray area on Heal Your Headache, and Dr Buchholz says he’s “suspicious” of it, so this choice really comes down to you and your personal preferences. Teeccino makes a few blends of these that seem to be safe if you can tolerate carob, like French Vanilla and Dandelion Dark Roast.
Finally, if you’re super hipster, you can try mushroom coffee. Four Sigmatic blends Swiss Water Processed Decaf with Reishi Mushrooms that is said to reduce occasional stress and promote relaxation. Chaga, the other mushroom used is said to support immunity and have antioxidant properties. Because mushrooms can contain a higher amount of natural free glutamate, this one might be a “proceed with caution” item. Still if you’re looking for something new to try and you know mushrooms are not an issue for you, it could be a great alternative to help decrease stress levels and avoid that coffee migraine.
PS: If you'd like to buy my Chip mug, which is probably the best part about this post, I just realized you can actually order it here on Amazon. 🙂
Swiss Water Processed Brands
Allegro Organic French Roast (my personal favorite) can also be found at Whole Foods.
For a craft coffee brand, check out Farm House Coffee Roasters, made by a friend with Vestibular Migraine. The decaf is Swiss Water Process and very delicious! Get 15% off with the code #dizzycook
CO2 Processed Brands
Chicory Blend Coffee
Teeccino Vanilla Chicory
Teeccino Dandelion Dark Roast Coffee *Be careful with some blends of Teeccino as they contain other triggers like nuts and dates.