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Can you be addicted to caffeine?

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger

A person pouring a cup of coffee.

Starting the day with a steaming hot coffee or a freshly brewed tea—sounds pretty normal, right? Maybe a caffeinated soft drink to get you through the day. Or an energy drink when your feet are dragging.

A morning, mid-morning, afternoon, or even evening caffeine boost is hardly unusual. As a matter of fact, studies show around 75 to 80% of the world’s population drinks caffeinated beverages regularly.1 

We’ve all heard the phrase “caffeine withdrawal” thrown about, but is caffeine really addictive?

Let’s start with the basics. 

What Is Caffeine?

Caffeine is a mild stimulant to the central nervous system which is often associated with increasing energy levels and providing a boost to our alertness and awareness. Known for preventing and even reversing the onset of tiredness, caffeinated drinks can be traced as far back as 2737 BC and have evolved over time, with caffeinated soft drinks produced in the late 1800s and energy drinks soon following.2 As one of the most commonly used ingredients in the world, caffeine is used in a variety of different products, including medicine, food, and drinks:

Common Caffeinated Products

    • Coffee
    • Tea
    • Soda
    • Acetaminophen
    • Cold and flu tablets
    • Chocolate (cacao)
    • Energy drinks
    • Supplements

Most people who drink caffeine regularly are generally referring to coffee—the most common form of caffeine with the highest consumption rate—followed by tea and soda. 

Is Caffeine Addiction Real?

So, can you really be addicted to coffee?

Well, yes and no. Although caffeine can provide some symptoms synonymous with addiction, it is described as a dependency rather than an addiction. Caffeine enhances dopamine signaling in the brain, which is a chemical that helps to control movement, motivation, and emotions. Enhancing the dopamine signaling makes the person feel more alert and awake, but does not cause the large surge that unbalances the reward circuits in the brain that is necessary for something to be classified as an addiction. 

It’s difficult to determine exactly how many people have a dependency on caffeine, especially when considering the staggering amount that is regularly consumed. However, some studies have indicated that more than a quarter of people who consume caffeine meet the criteria listed on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) Substance Dependence list.3 Although the DSM does not consider caffeine addiction as a substance abuse disorder, it does recognize it as a condition for future study.

Most Common Caffeine “Addiction” Symptoms

Wondering if you might have a dependency? Next time you skip a regular “dose” of caffeine (try going one full day without any caffeine), pay attention to how you feel. Do you experience any of these signs of caffeine withdrawal?

    • Headache
    • Sleep problems
    • Fatigue
    • Depressed mood
    • Irritability
    • Anxiety 
    • Trouble concentrating
    • Hand tremors
    • Low energy
    • Brain fog
    • Increased blood pressure
    • Dehydration

However, please note that the above symptoms can also be signs of many other health conditions. If you are trying to determine whether or not these symptoms are related to caffeine dependence, monitor what happens after consuming caffeine. Is there a correlation?

How Long Does It Take to Get “Addicted” to Caffeine?

Caffeine dependency is mostly characterized by the way that it affects an individual’s day-to-day functioning, rather than for how long that individual has been consuming caffeine. For example, a person could drink one cup of coffee every day for 10 years and not develop any dependency on caffeine or feel any level of distress when they don’t consume it. Whereas a person who has begun drinking five cups of coffee every day over the last six months may exhibit more signs of dependency when caffeine is inaccessible. 

Caffeine also affects everybody differently depending on their age, weight, gender, sensitivity, and lifestyle, which makes it difficult to estimate how long it takes for a caffeine dependency to develop. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms, on the other hand, are suggested to start around 12 to 24 hours after not having caffeine, and withdrawal can last 2 to 9 days.

The Effects of Caffeine on Your Health

Although our caffeine obsession cannot be medically described as an addiction, caffeine itself can lend itself to developing or aiding the increase of certain medical or health conditions. The most common health conditions caffeine consumption can contribute to include:

    • Insomnia or sleeping difficulties
    • Diabetes
    • Anxiety 
    • Weight management 
    • Risk of miscarriage 
    • Cardiovascular disease
    • Asthma
    • Neurological disease
    • Gallstones

However, by keeping to the recommended dosages, caffeine is not likely to cause you any major health problems. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommend that a daily intake of 400 mg of caffeine is considered safe.4 This amounts to about 2 to 4 cups of coffee per day (sorry, folks, that’s not a Venti® cup, but an actual 8-ounce serving).

Benefits of Caffeine for Your Health

But perk up—it’s not all bad news! There are actually known benefits of consuming caffeine, including:

Is There Caffeine Addiction Treatment

With both advantages and disadvantages of caffeine for your health, it can be difficult to determine whether you should stop drinking coffee. As previously mentioned, caffeine dependency really depends on each individual’s circumstances and how that individual reacts when the caffeine stimulus is taken away. For advice and recommendations on if you suffer from caffeine dependency, and if it’s having an impact on your mental health, visit our directory to find a therapist near you.

Steps You Can Take to Lower Your Caffeine Intake

If you’re looking to change your habits and reduce your caffeine intake, there are a few steps you can take to help:

    • Go caffeine free: Try to replace one of your daily coffees with a decaffeinated beverage instead. This could be decaffeinated coffee, or perhaps even herbal teas, which can provide various health benefits such as aiding digestion, reducing pains and soreness, and aiding sleep.
    • Exercise is key: Exercise is a natural stimulant for your body and central nervous system, so replacing a cup of coffee with a workout instead is a great way of lowering your caffeine intake. 
    • Take it slow: Gradually reducing your caffeine over the course of weeks rather than quitting cold turkey can help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms, such as sleeping difficulties, headaches, anxiety, and tremors.

However, if your caffeine dependency has led to other health concerns, such as anxiety or insomnia, or you believe it might have contributed to any ongoing mental health conditions, such as depression or eating disorders, it’s important to seek professional help.

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