While we often don’t think of it as one, caffeine is a stimulant. It is a real drug that has real effects on the body and brain.
What Is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant present in a variety of commonly consumed plants, including coffee and tea plants. It can also be made synthetically where it may be added to medicines and some other items, such as energy drinks.
A small to moderate amount of caffeine is not necessarily a significant health concern, but consistently consuming large amounts of caffeine can be.
Caffeine is one of the most widely legalized drugs in the world. Products containing caffeine can generally be freely purchased from many retailers with no or minimal issue. Many experts warn against children consuming caffeine, although the exact recommendations vary.
Regular caffeine consumption may lead to dependence and addiction, in rare cases.
Key Facts About Caffeine
- When monitoring your caffeine intake, it’s important to understand that a “drink” isn’t a useful measurement. You must instead look up how much caffeine is in the products you are consuming.
- Caffeine takes about 45 minutes to get fully absorbed after consuming it, and about half of it will be eliminated from the body within 4 hours. It can take as long as 12 hours for all caffeine to be eliminated from the body.
- Smoking may shorten how long caffeine lasts in the body, and birth control may lengthen how long it lasts.
- Powdered caffeine, while often legal, is much more dangerous than the normal caffeine-containing foods and beverages we associate with caffeine. Powdered caffeine should usually be avoided.
How Does Caffeine Affect the Brain?
Caffeine is a stimulant, energizing the central nervous system. This is the primary reason it can make people feel more awake and energetic.
It is essentially suppressing your brain’s natural sense of how tired you should be, although it can’t do this indefinitely. Even if you drink far more caffeine than is recommended throughout the day, your body will still eventually begin to experience fatigue.
Notably, stimulants also increase a person’s blood pressure and can mask some of the effects of depressants like alcohol until they wear off. This effect has the potential to have serious health consequences for individuals who aren’t careful or who are in certain risk groups.
Importantly, stimulants can’t replace sleep, which is an important process the body needs to “recharge” after staying active throughout the day. Stimulants can only temporarily make you feel less tired. They don’t repair the body or replace rest.
Is Caffeine Dangerous?
One of the complexities of talking about caffeine is that it isn’t as dangerous as many of the other substances we associate with recreational or casual drug use, like alcohol, nicotine, and opioids. That’s a medical fact, and it means caffeine doesn’t warrant the same level of caution as those drugs.
At the same time, caffeine can have real health effects, and it is still a true stimulant. It’s even possible to overdose on caffeine, although this is generally the result of misusing powdered caffeine, which can be much more potent than even fairly caffeine-dense food products like energy drinks.
At extremely high doses, caffeine can cause seizures, vomiting, muscle tremors, and even respiratory collapse.
A more common concern is that caffeine can interact with certain medications, affect fetuses when consumed by pregnant people (and babies, if a person breastfeeding consumes caffeine), and make some health issues, like anxiety and sleep disorders, worse. Caffeine can also exacerbate problems with ulcers, the heart, and some other health conditions.
In a few cases, caffeine has masked the effects of other drugs people were consuming. For example, some people have consumed more alcohol than they intended because caffeine from things like energy drinks hid the effects of the alcohol they had already consumed. The caffeine can wear off before the alcohol does, potentially resulting in dangerous symptoms due to the person drinking more than they should have.
The Real Problem of Caffeine Addiction
While it’s a scientific fact that caffeine can cause physical dependence in humans, resulting in (generally mild) withdrawal symptoms if a person stops use, dependence is not the same as addiction. Some experts have argued it is not possible to become addicted to caffeine, but the general consensus is that caffeine addiction can develop, though it is not common.
While more research is needed on the topic, the current evidence suggests caffeine addiction is a topic of concern that warrants more research, with major health organizations seeming to agree. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes a condition called caffeine dependence syndrome. The American Psychiatric Association has acknowledged the possibility of caffeine use disorder, which is similar in diagnostic criteria to WHO’s caffeine dependence syndrome.
Additionally, any findings that come from caffeine research don’t negate the real problem of people who feel they cannot stop drinking caffeine on their own despite it having an overall negative impact on their lives. These individuals need help, regardless of how we define the problem they’re dealing with.
What Causes Caffeine Addiction?
We don’t fully know what might cause caffeine to be addictive, but part of the issue may be some similarities it shares to much more addictive substances such as amphetamines. Caffeine can actually cause a dopamine release in a region of the brain that is similar to how amphetamines and cocaine work, although we know it doesn’t seem to be nearly as addictive as those substances.
It’s also known that repeated caffeine use can cause physical dependence, with the brain essentially rewiring itself in such a way that it becomes “confused” when a person’s body eliminates all the caffeine in it, causing withdrawal symptoms. Two of the symptoms of this withdrawal are drowsiness and trouble concentrating.
Because many people drink caffeine to improve their energy levels and alertness, this can reinforce their feeling that they need to drink more caffeine. Withdrawal actually makes them feel worse in those areas than if they weren’t physically dependent and hadn’t drunk caffeine in the first place.
How Caffeine Affects Your Health
Caffeine can have a variety of short-term effects on your health, including these:
- A rise in body temperature
- More frequent urination
- Heart palpitations
- Shaky hands
In the long term, caffeine is associated with these issues:
- Stomach irritation
Signs & Symptoms of Caffeine Addiction
Broadly, an addiction is a pattern of behavior in which a person repeatedly engages in substance use or behaviors in a way that is compulsive and will often continue despite seeing the harmful consequences of their actions.
For caffeine, this would mean repeatedly using caffeine despite health consequences, such as sleep problems, anxiety attacks, irritability, and more, to the point where any benefit of caffeine use is logically outweighed by the harm it is doing. This is especially true if a person begins to show the signs of long-term harm, such as developing stomach issues like ulcers or serious insomnia problems, yet they continue to use caffeine.
If you have an anxiety or panic disorder and a caffeine addiction, this substance is likely making it worse—reducing your caffeine intake could also help relieve you of some of your symptoms, such as panic attacks.
A person addicted to caffeine will likely also develop a physical dependence on caffeine, although not everyone physically dependent on caffeine is addicted, especially because withdrawal tends to be mild.
If you suddenly stop drinking caffeine after using it for a long time, you may go through withdrawal. This is true even if you don’t have an especially negative relationship with caffeine and can genuinely stop using it whenever you want.
Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include the following:
- Trouble concentrating
Tips for Lowering Your Dependence on Caffeine
If you want to cut back on your caffeine use, here are some tips that may help:
- Keep a diary of how much caffeine you consume each day. Try to slowly lower your caffeine intake even if you can’t stop use entirely.
- Research the caffeine present in the foods you eat and drink, so you have an accurate idea of how much caffeine you’re consuming. You may be surprised to find you are taking in more caffeine on a daily basis than you thought.
- Try alternative caffeine sources that are lower in caffeine, such as replacing coffee with tea.
- Identify what tends to cause a caffeine craving. Avoid those triggers when possible and try to fill those “craving times” with healthier behaviors, like exercise.
- Make an effort to sleep on a schedule and for at least eight hours per night when possible. This can help to naturally improve your energy levels and reduce your reliance on caffeine.
Admittedly, the treatment for caffeine addiction hasn’t been finalized, with the general understanding of it still underdeveloped and more research still needing to be done. However, addiction treatment involves several broadly applicable principles that can apply to almost any substance addiction, even when we don’t know all the specifics that may improve the treatment process further.
Caffeine addiction treatment should begin by talking with an addiction treatment professional about your problem and trying to develop a treatment plan that works for you. Addiction treatment usually involves some combination of the following:
- Behavioral counseling and therapy
- Working to build a strong support network
- Getting treatment for any co-occurring conditions, such as depression or insomnia
- Long-term follow-up care to prevent relapse
Treatment for caffeine misuse would also involve treatment for any co-occurring disorders, such as co-occurring mental health disorders like depression or co-occurring substance use disorders. It’s common for people who struggle with caffeine abuse to also misuse other substances.
Make sure whichever treatment path you choose is personalized to your needs and your progress in recovery. The journey to recovery is not always linear, so you want to make sure your treatment can adapt to your changing needs.
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