Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, increasing metabolism, elevating mood, and sharpening focus. Surveys find that over 90 percent of U.S. adults consume caffeine daily, many of whom find it difficult to start their day without a caffeine boost.
While many caffeine users state they are “addicted” to caffeine, experts disagree on whether excessive caffeine consumption meets the definition of addiction or is more properly classified as a dependence.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as “the uncontrolled (or compulsive) use of a substance even when it causes negative consequences.”
When a person addicted to drugs or alcohol stops using, they may experience severe, even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.
When caffeine consumption lessens or stops, the individual experiences mild withdrawal symptoms which often include headaches, insomnia, and feeling tired.
Warning Signs of Problematic Caffeine Use
Regular use of drugs or alcohol affects the reward center of the brain, increasing dopamine levels and producing a sense of pleasure. Eventually, drug or alcohol use causes dysfunction in brain circuitry.
When a person consistently consumes caffeine, it causes a mild increase in dopamine levels but it does not disrupt brain function.
The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not recognize caffeine as an addiction or substance use disorder. However, the manual does present criteria for identifying Caffeine Use Disorder and encourages further study.
The 10th revision of the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases recognizes a diagnosis of Caffeine Dependence Syndrome, noting diagnostic criteria similar to that used by DSM-5 for caffeine use disorder.
Criteria used to identify Caffeine Use Disorder or Caffeine Dependence Syndrome may include:
- A persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control caffeine use
- Craving or a strong desire or urge for caffeine
- Continued use despite harm
- Consuming caffeine in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended
- A need for increasingly greater amounts of caffeine to achieve the desired effect
- Recurrent caffeine use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home
- Withdrawal symptoms when not used
High amounts of caffeine can cause uncomfortable and even dangerous side effects. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the following symptoms indicate too much caffeine:
- Headache, nervousness, dizziness
- Having “the jitters” or feeling shaky
- Insomnia or sleep that is “on and off” throughout the night
- Racing heart or abnormal heartbeat
- Increase in blood pressure
Some studies link the consumption of high levels of caffeine to caffeine-induced anxiety disorder and caffeine-induced sleep disorder.
Cutting Down Caffeine Gradually
Experts advise cutting down or quitting caffeine gradually. If you drink regular coffee, mix it with decaf, slowly increasing the amount of decaf you consume. Switch out other caffeinated beverages with water or other non-caffeinated drinks. Drink hot or cold herbal teas. Take at least 2-3 weeks to reduce caffeine intake to minimize the chance for unpleasant withdrawal effects.
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