How Caffeine Addiction Can Affect Your Health

Caffeine addiction is the excessive and/or harmful use of caffeine over a period of time, which has negative effects on your health, social interactions, or other areas of your life. As caffeine is a widely accepted and used drug, many people don't believe caffeine can be addictive.

While most caffeine users feel they enjoy many of the effects of caffeine, like a good "morning boost," they may not be aware of some of the negative effects the drug is having, such as disrupted sleep, irritability, and anxiety. Many people, for example, get into a vicious cycle of drinking coffee to increase energy, only to find themselves both fatigued and unable to relax at bedtime. 

Some people experience significant problems as a result of their caffeine use, have difficulty coping without caffeine, and experience other unpleasant side effects as a result. There have even been isolated cases of caffeine overdose.

What to Know About Caffeine Addiction

Caffeine is one of the most widely used addictive substances, and it is heavily marketed to adults, teens, and even children. While coffee is probably the most frequently used source of caffeine, it is also present in many common foods and drinks, so your caffeine intake might be higher than you realize.

Caffeine intoxication is recognized in the DSM-5, the manual used by clinicians to classify and diagnose mental health concerns, and caffeine use disorder is identified as requiring further study.

Caffeine intoxication and caffeine withdrawal can both be very unpleasant, physically and psychologically, but either can easily be mistaken for a variety of other conditions. For example, people who are intoxicated with caffeine can exhibit similar symptoms as people with attention deficit disorders; caffeine withdrawal shares similar symptoms with mood disorders.

Caffeine addiction can cause and exacerbate many different health problems.

Gradually reducing your daily caffeine intake by increasingly mixing caffeinated beverages with non-caffeinated drinks is the best way to quit caffeine without withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms of Caffeine Addiction

As caffeine is a stimulant drug, caffeine intoxication causes a cluster of symptoms associated with stimulation of the brain and nervous system. While caffeine users enjoy the increased energy and alertness that caffeine gives them, unpleasant symptoms experienced by many consumers, especially those who are addicted, include:

  • Restlessness
  • Nervousness
  • Excitement
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Agitation
  • Muscle twitching
  • Rambling flow of thoughts and speech
  • Flushed face
  • Increased heart rate
  • Stomach upset
  • Increased urination

Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal

Caffeine withdrawal typically causes a rebound effect, producing symptoms that are the opposite of the effects of intoxication. This effect can be profound in those who are addicted to caffeine.

The symptom most often noticed by people going through caffeine withdrawal is a severe, intense caffeine withdrawal headache. When coming off caffeine, people often feel very tired and even drowsy. They may have difficulty concentrating, and feel depressed or irritable.

Occasionally, people withdrawing from caffeine also experience flu-like symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, or stiffness.

As with all addictions, the pattern of intoxication and withdrawal can mask emotional difficulties that are avoided through seeking out the pleasurable effects of caffeine. Lack of energy, lack of motivation, and depression may underlie caffeine addiction. It can also overlap with work addiction, as some people use the stimulating effects of caffeine both to increase energy for and interest in the mental and physical activities associated with their jobs. Similarly, caffeine addiction can mask the avoidance of more fulfilling activities and relationships.

How Caffeine Addiction Can Look and Feel Like Other Disorders

Again, the stimulating effects of caffeine can cause physical symptoms and behaviors that can look and feel like, and therefore be easily confused with, other disorders. Therefore, it is important to let your doctor or psychologist know how much caffeine you are consuming, and how frequently you are doing so if you are being assessed for any condition.

For example, caffeine intoxication produces symptoms that can easily be confused with anxiety disorders, such as panic attacks. Using too much caffeine can also worsen symptoms of anxiety disorders in people who are affected, intensifying feelings of worry; increasing racing thoughts; making it difficult to quiet the mind; increasing agitation and shakiness; and preventing relaxation and quality (or any) sleep. However, as with other addictions, you might experience your use of caffeine as calming and temporarily relieving of anxiety. You may feel and even believe it helps you cope.

Other health concerns caffeine intoxication can be confused with:

It can also be mistaken for, and worsen symptoms of, withdrawal from other substances, such as amphetamines and cocaine. Stimulant drugs are often cut with caffeine, increasingly the likelihood that caffeine withdrawal is involved in withdrawal from these drugs.

Caffeine Can Induce Other Disorders

When a disorder is induced by a substance, although it is triggered by substance use, it does meet the criteria for the disorder, rather than simply being an effect of intoxication or withdrawal. Caffeine-induced disorders include caffeine-induced anxiety disorder and caffeine-induced sleep disorder.

How Caffeine Can Affect Your Health

Caffeine has various effects on the body, which are potentially harmful to health. Caffeine increases heart rate and can cause abnormalities in the heartbeat, so is not recommended for people with cardiovascular problems. It also increases blood pressure and affects bone density, increasing the risk of osteoporosis.

What to Do If You Think You Might Be Addicted to Caffeine

Addiction involves not only excessive use of caffeine but also relying on caffeine to cope with life, typically in spite of negative effects. To figure out whether you might be addicted, go through the following steps:

Assess your intake: Calculate how much caffeine you are actually consuming on a typical day, including gourmet espresso, lattes, and cappuccino, which are typically much stronger than regular drip or instant coffee, soda, and other common caffeine-containing foods and drinks.

Pay attention to how you feel: Make a note of any side effects of caffeine, as well as withdrawal symptoms that happen if you miss a regular dose of caffeine.

Consider the effects: Think about the effects of caffeine or withdrawal symptoms you experience if you miss a regular dose, and how they have affected your feelings, functioning, and relationships. For example, do you get irritable if you have too much or too little caffeine? Do you experience headaches or fatigue if you miss a dose of caffeine? Most importantly, do you feel you "need" caffeine to get through the day?

Next Steps to Consider

If you feel that your responses to any of the above seem alarming, speak to your healthcare provider.

If you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor about your caffeine intake as soon as possible.

Similarly, if you have another health problem that might be impacted by your caffeine use, such as a cardiovascular problem, discuss options with your doctor right away.

The vicious cycle of addiction happens with caffeine, just as it does with other addictive substances. As the effects of caffeine wear off, you might feel a crash in energy and that you can't keep going without another boost of caffeine. As withdrawal can make you feel worse, it is important for most people to reduce your caffeine intake gradually rather than abruptly to get the maximum benefit from quitting or reducing caffeine. Your doctor can help you devise a plan.

If you feel you are using excessive amounts of caffeine to cope with an ongoing emotional problem, such as depression or anxiety, also talk to your physician about options for treating these problems. The right treatment could make a huge difference for you. Caffeine addiction often overlaps with other behavioral addictions, such as sugar addiction, so you might find that evaluating your caffeine intake opens up a Pandora's box of other behaviors that need to be addressed.

If you don't feel you are addicted to caffeine, but you do feel you are consuming more than is healthy, you can choose to either reduce your caffeine intake or cut out caffeine altogether. The most common mistake, in either case, is to cut down by too much too soon, causing you to relapse due to an intense headache.

Instead of cutting your caffeine intake in half, try reducing your regular intake by about 10 percent every two weeks; reduce the strength of your last caffeinated drink of the day by diluting it with an uncaffeinated drink.

A Word From Verywell

Caffeine addiction is so common we don't even notice it most of the time. But the feeling of getting back in touch with your own natural energy, and having the ability to relax when night falls, is unparalleled when you able to greatly reduce or quit caffeine.

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