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Caffeine Addiction Overview
Caffeine is well known as the most used drug in the world. In fact, more than 90% of American adults use caffeine regularly for its ability to keep us awake, alert, and focused.
While caffeine’s addictiveness is still hotly debated, forming a dependence on your morning coffee is well-researched.
Caffeine dependence, withdrawal, and overdose are real risks that are often overlooked due to caffeine’s popularity. Learning the risks and effects of caffeine use is an important step to ensuring you avoid the negative effects of caffeine abuse and dependence.
Is Caffeine Addictive?
The topic of caffeine addiction has been very controversial over the years.
The term “caffeine dependence” is typically used more frequently in research due to the ongoing debate on caffeine’s addictiveness. Researchers believe caffeine addiction is possible but not very common.
However, there’s no question that caffeine can cause dependence. Dependence refers to a chemical reliance on caffeine, whereas addiction relates to the behavior around consuming caffeine and the mental effects it causes.
The reason for the debate around caffeine’s addictiveness is that caffeine has a less significant impact on dopamine than the impact of drugs like amphetamines. Dopamine is a brain chemical associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.
Many drugs and even behaviors can lead to the release of dopamine in the brain, eventually leading to dependence and addiction over time.
Caffeine’s lesser effect on dopamine could explain why caffeine abuse can lead to addiction for some people but isn’t as addictive as other types of drugs.
Caffeine Addiction Diagnosis
Although caffeine addiction is still being debated, problematic use of caffeine is still a known issue for healthcare providers.
Caffeine use disorder is considered a condition for further study in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), and the closely related caffeine dependence syndrome is a recognized disorder in ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Revision).
The DSM-5 does list caffeine-related disorders, which include caffeine intoxication, caffeine withdrawal, and other caffeine-induced disorders.
How Does Caffeine Affect the Brain?
The drug caffeine is classified as a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant and increases the activity of your brain and nervous system. Most people consume caffeinated drinks like coffee or energy drinks because of caffeine’s effects on feeling more awake, focused, and energized.
Caffeine encourages alertness by blocking adenosine receptors, which are related to tiredness. Blocking these receptors also releases the body’s natural stimulants, like dopamine and norepinephrine. As a result, you may feel less tired and more alert.
Caffeine also triggers other physical responses like raised heart rate, blood pressure, and constricted blood vessels, which can increase energy levels.
What Are the Risks of Caffeine Consumption?
Although consumption of low to moderate doses of caffeine is generally safe, taking higher doses can lead to increased risk for negative health consequences for some vulnerable people, including cardiovascular problems and perinatal complications.
The most common risk is physical dependence on caffeine and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when limiting caffeine consumption.
Adults who consume doses higher than the recommended 400mg per day often report heightened anxiety, stomach issues, insomnia, and heart palpitations.
Side Effects of Caffeine Addiction
The side effects of caffeine intake can vary wildly from person to person. There are so many caffeinated beverages on the market, and side effects will vary depending on the amount of caffeine the individual has consumed.
Common side effects of caffeine addiction include:
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Heart palpitations
- Sleep disorders or trouble falling asleep
- Increased anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Shakiness and muscle twitching
- Frequent urination
When individuals try cutting back on their daily caffeine intake or try quitting cold turkey, withdrawal symptoms can arise.
Withdrawal occurs due to the body’s dependence on caffeine to function. Without caffeine or coffee consumption on a daily basis, the body and mind struggle to function normally.
Common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Depressed mood
- Flu-like symptoms, such as muscle pain or stiffness, nausea, or vomiting
It’s possible to overdose on caffeine, especially when taking high doses of well over 400mg. Many people who overdose on caffeine do so without realizing how many products contain caffeine.
Regular coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, candy, supplements, and over-the-counter medications for migraines can all contain caffeine. All of these caffeine sources can quickly add up, causing serious health problems that require medical attention.
Signs of caffeine overdose include:
- Increased thirst
Seek immediate medical attention if these severe signs of caffeine overdose are present:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain
- Irregular or fluttering heartbeat
- Uncontrollable muscle movements
- Hallucinations or delusions
If you have symptoms that don’t require immediate medical attention, doctors recommend you drink lots of water, take a walk, practice deep breathing, and wait it out.
If more serious symptoms arise, call your doctor or go to urgent care or the emergency room for immediate treatment.
Statistics About Caffeine Addiction
Caffeine is the most used drug in the world, so there’s considerable research on its effects and risks. Researchers have identified some interesting and sometimes alarming trends in the culture around coffee drinkers and how caffeine is included in many foods and drinks.
- According to the University of Vermont, more than 90% of American adults use caffeine regularly.
- The average caffeine consumption is more than 200 mg of caffeine per day—more caffeine than in two 6-ounce cups of coffee or five 12-ounce cans of soft drinks.
- Research from Johns Hopkins indicates that about 8% of caffeine users meet DSM-proposed criteria for caffeine use disorder.
How to Treat Caffeine Addiction
There is no official treatment for caffeine dependence or addiction, but there are some things you can do to cut down on your caffeine usage.
Remember that each person’s sensitivity to caffeine use will be different, so what might be moderate amounts for a friend may be too much for you.
Track Caffeine Usage
If you suspect you may have a caffeine dependence or addiction, try tracking how much caffeine you’re consuming from foods and beverages in your daily life. Remember that your estimate may be low because some foods or drinks containing caffeine don’t list it.
The recommended limit for adults is 400mg per day and 200mg for adolescents.
Cut Back Gradually
Quitting caffeine abruptly often leads to unpleasant withdrawal symptoms and can even lead to cravings. Instead, try drinking one fewer cup of coffee or soda each day.
In addition, avoid drinking caffeinated beverages late in the day so your body can slowly adjust to the lower levels of caffeine and lessen potential withdrawal symptoms.
Opt for Decaf
Choosing decaffeinated beverages is another great way to cut back on caffeine usage. Most decaf options appear and taste the same as the caffeinated versions. If you like drinking caffeinated tea, use herbal options or shorten the brew time to reduce caffeine dosage.
Get Help for Caffeine Addiction
While there’s no official diagnosis or treatment for caffeine addiction, many people still struggle with the physical and mental health effects of caffeine dependence. If you or a loved one show signs of problematic caffeine usage, there are still options available to you.
Start by talking to your doctor about your current caffeine intake and the symptoms you’re experiencing. Your healthcare provider can help you determine how and when to reduce caffeine to improve your overall well-being.
FAQ's About Caffeine Addiction
Can you be addicted to caffeine?
Possibly. There is still heavy debate on whether caffeine addiction is possible. However, there’s no debate over caffeine dependence.
People with dependence on caffeine may find it difficult to function without consuming caffeine and may even suffer withdrawal symptoms when abstaining.
Is caffeine addiction dangerous?
It can be if caffeine is taken at very high doses. Aside from uncomfortable side effects like stomach issues, increased anxiety, and sleep issues, caffeine overdose is possible and can be life-threatening if left untreated.
Signs of caffeine overdose that require immediate medical attention include:
- Chest pain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Trouble breathing
- Hallucinations or delusions
- Uncontrollable muscle movements
Does caffeine addiction lead to drug addiction?
Not necessarily. For people with certain risk factors for substance abuse, it’s possible for caffeine users to try drugs in the future for increased stimulant effects.
These individuals may engage in drug abuse after forming a caffeine dependence, but it’s likely not due to their issue with caffeine but instead due to other risk factors for addiction.
How long does it take to break a caffeine addiction?
It depends. Each person is different, so it may depend on the dosage they’ve been consuming and their own body’s biology.
For most people, caffeine withdrawal symptoms last two to nine days, and they will be feeling normal again no more than two weeks after they’ve stopped using caffeine.
Can you go to rehab for caffeine addiction?
No. Most rehab centers will not accept patients with only caffeine dependence or addiction. However, if there are other substance issues or mental health problems also present, a rehab center may admit a patient.
How do I avoid caffeine addiction?
Check how much caffeine is in the foods and drinks you commonly consume, and try to stay below 400mg per day for adults and 200mg per day for adolescents.
If you experience withdrawal symptoms on days you don’t have caffeine, that may indicate you have a dependence.
Tracking your caffeine consumption, opting for decaf, and slowly cutting back are the best ways to avoid caffeine addiction.