Caffeine is a weak stimulant drug found in over 60 different plants.8 Caffeine can be physically addictive, producing withdrawal if a heavy user stops suddenly. Generally, caffeine is not psychologically addictive. Treatment for caffeine addiction is generally not required, other than some brief education about how to gradually reduce the amount consumed to prevent withdrawal.
What Is Caffeine Addiction?
Caffeine addiction is psychological or physiological dependence on the drug caffeine. Coffee is the primary source of caffeine and is widely consumed throughout the world. Caffeine is physiologically addictive. If someone drinks a lot of coffee for a prolonged period, or heavily uses some other source of caffeine, they will experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop.
The withdrawal symptoms will be relieved when caffeine is used again. This just means your body has adapted to the presence of caffeine, and if it suddenly goes without, you will experience some discomfort as your body adapts. You can find the caffeine content of the most common beverages here.4
Caffeine is a psychoactive drug, specifically, it is a central nervous system stimulant, but it is a weak stimulant. Beverages that contain caffeine are culturally acceptable, legal, and can be purchased almost anywhere. This makes use of caffeine widespread and commonplace, but not problematic. Caffeine is not rewarding enough to produce compulsions to use more, desperation to get more, or abandonment of moral standards.9
Caffeine addiction will typically not result in life becoming unmanageable, though some coffee lovers will say they can’t function until they have had their morning coffee. Life becoming unmanageable refers to a progressive loss of organization and performance, which results in multiple health, financial, psychological, legal, and social problems. This is just not applicable to caffeine.
How Caffeine Affects the Brain
Caffeine prevents a brain chemical called adenosine from doing its job. Adenosine’s job is akin to a dimmer switch; it adjusts the levels of five other brain chemicals, that all have their own jobs:
- Epinephrine – increased alertness and energy
- Serotonin – sleep
- Dopamine – pleasure and reward
- Acetylcholine – memory and muscle control
- Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid – sedation
Turn up the first four brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, and turn down the last one, and you get the familiar effects of caffeine.10
Signs of Caffeine Addiction: What to Watch For
Excessive consumption (more than 400 mg. of caffeine a day), and withdrawal symptoms, mainly headache, are indicators of caffeine addiction for all age groups.
Signs of Caffeine Addiction in Children
Children will be over-energized and sleepless. Caffeine consumption can disturb a child’s sleep schedule and make them more energetic and difficult to manage. Generally speaking, children should avoid caffeine. The effects of caffeine on the child’s developing nervous system are unknown. Another concern is children drinking copious amounts of colas and iced teas, which are usually loaded with sugar. Prevention is the best way to deal with caffeine addiction in children.
Signs of Caffeine Addiction in Teens
Complaining of a headache if they don’t have their usual caffeinated beverages is indicative of caffeine withdrawal, which means physiological addiction has happened. Acting more energized than usual and staying up later than usual are also indicators of too much caffeine. Excess consumption should be discouraged by parents. The greater concern than the caffeine is the sugar content of the beverages containing caffeine.
Signs of Caffeine Addiction in Adults
Headache will be the noticeable indicator of addiction to caffeine for adults. Once again, excess sugar is bad for you, regardless of your age, and commercially prepared caffeinated beverages are loaded with sugar. Adults who enjoy caffeinated beverages would be better off preparing them at home and limiting the amount of added sugar.
Signs of Caffeine Addiction in Seniors
The elderly may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine, and have difficulty falling asleep and getting restful sleep.
Symptoms of Caffeine Addiction
The central feature of caffeine addiction is the presence of withdrawal symptoms when the use of caffeine is stopped. This is quite minor and time-limited discomfort compared to the withdrawal effects of other psychoactive drugs. There will be symptoms associated with excess caffeine consumption, which do not necessarily indicate dependence. The longer the period and the more caffeine is consumed, the greater the severity of withdrawal headache when it is stopped.
The symptoms of using too much caffeine include:13,11
- Anxiety and nervousness.
- Restless and unable to hold still.
- Tremors and twitches, especially in the fingers.
- Unable to sleep.
- High energy.
- Rapid speaking not listening, interrupting
- Stomach upset
Withdrawal symptoms when you stop using caffeine include:
- Depressed mood
- Low energy
- Cravings for caffeine source, e.g., coffee or energy drinks
- Dreams about caffeine source
Causes & Triggers of Caffeine Addiction
There are several reasons why caffeine may be consumed in excess, which can lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when you stop consuming. These may include a job that requires long hours, compensating for or recovering from other drug use, and poor health habits (including not getting enough sleep).
Health Risks of Caffeine Addiction
There are no apparent risks associated with caffeine addiction in otherwise healthy adults. The risks are more associated with caffeine overdose, rather than actual dependence on caffeine. There are additional health risks involving the beverages containing caffeine, namely that colas and energy drinks contain large amounts of white sugar.13
High sugar consumption is implicated in obesity, tooth decay, Adult onset diabetes, and contributes to heart disease. Diet colas contain artificial sweeteners, which may carry health risks.7 Energy drinks are loaded with sugar, but most contain about the same amount of caffeine as coffee.
Treatment for Caffeine Addiction
Caffeine addiction tends to be minor, time limited, and easily resolved with education, which is the lowest level of treatment. Treatment plans may include therapy and education about the effects of caffeine, as well as acclimating yourself to healthy lifestyle changes which limit your caffeine use and maintain proper sleep habits.
Some potential topics that may be covered by a therapist for caffeine addiction include:11
- Caffeine addiction would be addressed as part of general substance abuse counselling
- Education about caffeine.
- Other substance abuse treatment may be concurrent.
- Education about general good health habits, and proper nutrition.
- Sleep hygiene, which are practices to ensure a good night’s sleep. Part of this is avoiding caffeine within three to six hours of bedtime
Healthy lifestyle changes are often the key to kicking a poor caffeine habit. Consider the following:
- Sleep when you need to. Substituting caffeine for lost sleep means you will accrue a sleep debt. When the caffeine wears off, you will crash, or become very tired, and have no energy or motivation.
- Find healthy substitutes for cola beverages. Mass produced colas are mostly carbonated sugar water.7
- Tea and cocoa have less caffeine than coffee and have health benefits from the antioxidants they contain.
- Half-caff is made by mixing regular coffee and decaffeinated coffee in equal amounts. This can also be purchased pre-mixed.
- Limit caffeine use to less than 400 mg. a day.
Medication is generally not needed for caffeine addiction. The withdrawal symptoms include headache, which can be severe and persistent for some people. Over the counter pain relievers such as aspirin (Bayer, and many other brands), ibuprofen (Advil), naprosyn (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful to relieve headache. Anacin and Excedrin both contain caffeine, which will relieve the withdrawal headache, but prolong the withdrawal once it wears off.
Check with your physician, pharmacist or other health care provider before taking even an over the counter pain reliever, as some people can experience adverse effects.
How to Get Help for a Caffeine Addiction
If you are concerned about your use of caffeine, talk to your health care provider. They can help you create a schedule to reduce your caffeine intake gradually to avoid withdrawal symptoms. It would be highly unlikely to be admitted to an inpatient or IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) for caffeine addiction alone.
Caffeine addiction may be diagnosed in addition to other substance abuse disorders if someone is using multiple substances. Another option is CAFFA, a 12-step group modelled after AA for those who feel their use of caffeine is problematic.2
Living with Caffeine Addiction: Coping & Managing Symptoms
Caffeine addiction tends to be minor, short term, and easily resolved, but may be recurrent if excessive amounts of caffeine are regularly consumed, then suddenly stopped. Students may consume large amounts of caffeine during the semester and reduce or stop consumption between semesters. This will result in bouts of withdrawal symptoms. The most effective means of avoiding the uncomfortable caffeine withdrawal symptoms is to not consume caffeine. This may not be desirable, necessary, or realistic in many cases.
More realistic methods of coping with caffeine addiction include:
- Regulating intake of caffeine
- Gradually reducing caffeine intake to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
Caffeine Addiction Test
LADC’s (Licensed Alcohol & Drug Counselors) are the professionals who diagnose and treat substance abuse disorders. (The title may vary from one state to the next, but the requirements are similar for clinicians who specialize in treatment of chemical or behavioral dependencies e.g., gambling). The diagnosis is determined by several methods, including a diagnostic interview.
This is a 60-90-minute interview which includes:
- Developmental history: where were you born and raised, married, single, divorced, parents, siblings and children, and the quality of your relationship with them.
- Employment, education, and if applicable military experience: This indicates how well functioning someone is; are they employed, did they finish high school, attend college, if in the military, did they receive and honorable discharge.
- Medical history: serious or chronic illness, surgeries, medication taken regularly, serious injuries, or surgeries.
- Legal history: arrests, convictions, lawsuits.
- Mental status: mood, thinking, concentration, attention, memory, sleep quality, appetite.
- Recent (30 days or less) or remote (more than 30 days) use of psychoactive substances. LADC’s may include caffeine on the list of substances they inquire about during a diagnostic interview. Caffeine addiction may occur in the context of other addictions, or as a replacement for other addictions.
A urine drug screen is part of the evaluation, but unless a special request is made to the testing lab, caffeine will not be a drug which is normally detected. Paper and pencil tests, (which are mostly done online, but the old name has stuck) may be part of the evaluation.
Education and awareness about good general health habits can prevent developing physiological dependence on caffeine, and manage withdrawal symptoms. Caffeine addiction may be a part of addiction to other substances, such as heroin or cocaine, and may indicate someone is in a fragile state of recovery from these addictions.
For most adults, there are health benefits from drinking coffee, tea, and cocoa, and eating chocolate, which are the beverage and food sources of caffeine and related compounds. Moderation is an effective means of obtaining the health benefits without the discomfort of caffeine withdrawal.