Caffeine: The Energizing Elixir We Love, But Are We Addicted?

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Caffeine: the whole reason humans have loved coffee so dearly for centuries. But beyond the coffee bean, caffeine is found in tea leaves, cocoa beans, kola nuts, and the guarana plant.  In fact, caffeine is considered a drug–technically a stimulant, working to increase energy levels, alertness, and focus. Illicit substances and prescription drugs may come to mind when one thinks about stimulants, but caffeine actually belongs to a naturally derived class of stimulants. But why do we crave caffeine so much?

Benefits of caffeine

More than three-quarters of Americans consume an average of 200mg of caffeine daily, equating to roughly two cups of coffee. Generally, an 8-ounce cup of coffee contains about 100mg of caffeine, while a shot of espresso contains around 70mg in far less volume. Decaf contains minimal doses of caffeine as well, usually under 10mg.

Caffeine is known to improve mood, boost energy levels, and help with concentration. For some, caffeine can provide relief from headaches and boost metabolism. Research suggests it can potentially reduce the risk of stroke, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, colorectal cancer, and liver disease. On that note, some studies have even found a link between drinking coffee and lower risk of heart disease. 

Caffeine Addiction

Many doctors suggest that consumption of up to 400mg of caffeine per day is actually safe, depending on how your body reacts to the substance. Despite all of the reported and potential benefits of drinking caffeine, too much of a good thing can be harmful. Drinking more than 400mg of caffeine per day can have negative effects on you. Excessive caffeine consumption can cause muscle tremors, indigestion, irritability, headaches, and interrupt sleep patterns. 

These side effects may vary from person to person based on their tolerance for the substance, even if they don’t consume more than 400mg in a day. Over time, the body builds a tolerance for caffeine, and you may find that eventually, you need to consume more coffee to achieve the same effects as before. Therein lies the addictive nature of caffeine.

On one hand, the American Psychological Association (APA) does not currently consider caffeine addiction a substance use disorder. On the other, the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does classify caffeine withdrawal as a clinical condition. Regardless of whether caffeine addiction is considered an actual substance use disorder, suddenly quitting caffeine “cold turkey” can induce withdrawal symptoms.

How Caffeine Works on the Brain

Caffeine withdrawal begins with the chemical effects caffeine has on the brain. Caffeine’s molecular structure is very similar to that of adenosine, a chemical that already exists in the brain. Adenosine typically bonds to cell receptors in the brain to induce feelings of sleepiness. But when caffeine enters the bloodstream and the brain, its molecules bind to these receptors instead, blocking the adenosine and causing the individual to feel more alert and energetic. 

When an individual’s tolerance to caffeine develops, their brain begins to produce more adenosine receptors to keep up with frequent coffee consumption. During the withdrawal phase, when these caffeine molecules are suddenly absent, the brain begins to decrease the number of adenosine receptors on its cells, to which the caffeine molecules were previously bonded. Over time, the adenosine receptors will return to their natural levels after a few weeks if the drinker continues to decrease intake, or quits altogether.

Withdrawal Symptoms

For regular coffee drinkers and those who have a tolerance to caffeine, suddenly stopping your caffeine consumption can cause caffeine withdrawal. Symptoms may include…

  • Headache
  • Irritability 
  • Fatigue 
  • Feelings of anxiety 
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Brain fog
  • Tremors

The withdrawal period can last from one to two weeks after quitting–a much shorter period compared to withdrawal for substance abuse disorders. Moreover, the severity of these symptoms may depend on your daily intake of caffeine.

What to do

If you suspect yourself a coffee addict, you are not alone! Perhaps you’ve felt the headache of the caffeine withdrawal, too. Or, maybe you have to drink five to six cups of coffee just to feel ready to tackle the day. Consider lowering and limiting your caffeine intake gradually over a few weeks to mediate your withdrawal symptoms. 

It is important to note that those with existing mental health conditions are more likely to develop a caffeine addiction. If you are struggling with a co-occurring disorder–like insomnia or an eating disorder, for example–don’t be afraid to see a therapist or seek treatment. At the end of the day, you can always drink decaf.