Caffeine Addiction 101: Everything You Need to Know
Is your caffeine habit negatively affecting your life?
Caffeine might currently be the most ubiquitous substance in western society. 62% of Americans drink coffee every day, and, on average, drink about three cups daily. One might look at those statistics and think, It’s just coffee — how harmful can that be? Well, when consumed in excess, it can be addictive and lead to negative physical and mental health consequences.
Caffeine might not be as devastating as addictive substances like alcohol and drugs, but nevertheless, it’s beneficial to consider its affects — both positive and negative — and evaluate how it might be impacting you.
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Here is a guide to caffeine addiction, what it is, how it affects the body, signs of addiction and how to quit caffeine entirely or reduce consumption.
What Is Caffeine Addiction, and Is It Even Real?
While caffeine isn’t addictive in the way drugs, alcohol and other substances are, one can develop an unhealthy dependency on it, just as an addict develops a dependency on their desired substance. Like other drugs or substances, the more a person uses caffeine, the less effective it becomes. Eventually, the person develops a tolerance and must consume more to obtain the desired effects.
Caffeine is most known for its ability to “wake” a person up in the morning. While caffeine might help a person feel more alert, it doesn’t wake someone up in the way one might think it does. Caffeine is a stimulant to the central nervous system that, upon consumption, quickly absorbs into the brain and promotes a feeling of alertness. This is because the substance blocks the brain’s sleep-promoting receptors known as adenosine receptors. Caffeine can do this because, on a molecular level, it looks similar to adenosine, a molecule in the body that usually binds to these receptors to help regulate the sleep/wake cycle.
Though most people think of coffee when they think of caffeine, the substance is found in many other products. Other common sources include soda, tea, chocolate, energy drinks and some over-the-counter pain medications, just to name a few.
When consumed mindfully, caffeine can still be enjoyable and even beneficial. The FDA recommends keeping caffeine consumption to around 400 milligrams (equivalent to about four cups of coffee) per day.
How Caffeine Affects Your Health, Your Body and Your Brain
Caffeine is not all bad. There is scientific evidence promoting both the beneficial and detrimental effects of caffeine. However, it’s important to know the risks one might encounter when consuming any substance.
First, caffeine has been shown to have an effect on pregnancy. A 2017 study found a correlation between miscarriage and the amount of caffeine the pregnant person consumes; however, it does not influence fertility.
Additionally, overconsumption of caffeine can be found in other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, depression, sleep disorders, eating disorders and schizophrenia.
Some research shows that excessive caffeine consumption could cause the lower chambers of the heart (ventricles) to skip beats. However, the good news is that caffeine doesn’t cause irregularities the upper chambers of the heart (atria).
Signs of Caffeine Addiction
An overconsumption of caffeine becomes an addiction when it begins to affect one’s ability to function in everyday life. Again, while caffeine use disorder is not an official diagnosis, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), it has been placed under Conditions for Further Study. According to the DSM-5, here are the criteria that must be present to determine if one has a caffeine problem:
- Heart, stomach and urinary issues
- Depression and anxiety
- Difficulty thinking
- Inability to control, reduce or eliminate use
- Continued use despite harm
Who Should Avoid Caffeine?
For some populations, caffeine should limited. These include:
- People who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- People with anxiety disorders
- People who have chronic headaches or migraines
- Those with a sleep disorder
- Those who take certain stimulants, such as heart medicines
- People who have high blood pressure
- People with a fast/irregular heartbeat
- Those who have GERD or ulcers
People with the mental disorders previously mentioned in the “Signs of Caffeine Addiction” section of this article should be wary of caffeine overconsumption also, as it can exacerbate their symptoms.
Caffeine Withdrawal and Symptoms
People who quit caffeine after addiction to it could experience caffeine withdrawal, a medically recognized condition that can be characterized by the following symptoms:
- Low energy
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- Difficulty concentrating
- Depressed mood
- Decreased energy
- Decreased motor activity
Unlike other substances, caffeine withdrawal symptoms only last for around 7-12 days and the recovery period overall is relatively short. During that time, the brain will reduce the number of adenosine receptors
Tips for Quitting Caffeine
In order to minimize withdrawal symptoms, the best way to quit caffeine is to taper off gradually. Stopping consumption abruptly will exacerbate withdrawal symptoms, leading the person to start using caffeine again to avoid them, and the cycle continues. This article suggests slowly decreasing the number of coffees, teas, energy drinks, etc. one consumes in a day.
Then, start substituting these for decaffeinated equivalents. For example, one could alternate between regular and decaf coffee every other day until they’re able to switch to decaf fully. If done successfully, caffeine should only take about 2 to 3 weeks.