Is Caffeine Addictive?

If you feel as if you would be lost without your morning cup of coffee, you’re not alone. 90 percent of adults in the United States drink caffeine regularly, and many of them are so accustomed to the drug that they would experience unpleasant physical withdrawal symptoms if they discontinued their use. 

However, experts have been reluctant to refer to this condition as an “addiction” for fear of undermining the suffering and psychological phenomena associated with addiction to more dangerous and more powerful substances. 

While caffeine does lead to a small spike in the reward chemical dopamine, this spike is not considered big enough to unbalance the brain’s reward system as is seen with more addictive drugs, as is attested to by the fact that it does not inspire the same out of control seeking behavior as is seen with those other drugs.

And, in contrast to drugs that cause impairment and intoxication that interferes with awareness and productivity, studies have shown that people who drink coffee actually score better on cognitive tests and to be more alert, as well as to have better short-term recall and faster reaction times .

Caffeine is also less addictive/problematic than other drugs because it is somewhat self-limiting, since consuming too much caffeine tends to lead to unpleasant physical symptoms like jitteriness, headaches, anxiety, nausea, and dehydration. 

Additionally, though overdoses of caffeine are possible, and have been reported in rare cases involving the use of concentrated products like caffeine powder, you would probably throw up far before you reached a physically dangerous level of caffeine intoxication from coffee or soda alone. 

Furthermore, unlike most illegal drugs and problematic legal drugs like alcohol, science suggests that moderate caffeine consumption may have a number of health benefits as opposed to harms. Studies have shown that caffeine consumption can reduce the risk of conditions like cancer, diabetes, liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. Caffeine has also been shown to improve mood and ward off depression, boost your metabolism, and even enhance your exercise performance. 

What To Expect From Caffeine Withdrawal

So, while caffeine does not generally foster true addiction, it can lead to phenomena like tolerance, which is when more and more of the drug is needed to achieve the same effects, and dependence, which occurs when ceasing one’s use of the substance results in unpleasant symptoms because the body has adapted to its presence. 

The good news is that caffeine withdrawal is also relatively mild compared to withdrawal from other drugs, with the worst symptoms typically abating after a few days, though it’s possible they can last for up to two weeks. 

However, you should be prepared to experience symptoms like headaches, irritability, fatigue, low mood, tremors, and trouble concentrating. The severity of symptoms can depend on how heavy your use was, and how quickly you cut back; if you want to decrease your caffeine use without experiencing such severe symptoms, you can taper off your intake rather than going “cold turkey.”

When Caffeine Use Becomes A Problem

While most people can consume moderate amounts of caffeine safely without having trouble controlling their use, if someone feels compelled to use caffeine to the extent that they are experiencing unpleasant physical symptoms that interfere with their ability to participate in day to day life, they should probably reevaluate their intake. 

For instance, if caffeine intake is interfering with their ability to get a good night’s sleep, they should make an effort to have their last cup at least six hours before bedtime to ensure that it is out of their system by then. Experts also recommend that most people limit their consumption of caffeine to around 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, which is about the amount you would get if you consumed about four cups of coffee.

Caffeine can also be dangerous for people with certain health conditions, like high blood pressure, and consumption at high levels can deplete the body of critical nutrients like calcium, iron, and magnesium. 

It is also dangerous to use caffeine to try to sober up from use of another, more intoxicating substance, as caffeine use could worsen symptoms like increased heart rate that are associated with some illegal and prescription drugs. Caffeine could also make you feel more sober than you actually are, increasing the risk that you will engage in a dangerous behavior like drunk driving because you falsely think you can handle it, or continue drinking past reasonable limits because you do not realize how intoxicated you are. 

Caffeine use can also be problematic when the substance is used to compensate for the effects of another mental health problem, such as if it is relied on as a substitute for sleep in insomniacs or a substitute for food in patients with eating disorders, or as a substitute for a more appropriate stimulant medication in patients with attention deficit disorder. 

So, while counseling or treatment may be needed to deal with these underlying issues, caffeine use itself is unlikely to pose a significant danger to your mental health. To learn more about addiction withdrawal and addiction treatment, feel free to reach out to us anytime at (833) 489-5577.

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