Consuming caffeine may be a way of life for most Americans (and much of the world!), but one of the side effects is that it is well known to affect anxiety. Whether you are looking for ways to get rid of caffeine anxiety caused by withdrawal, or you suspect that your caffeine consumption is making your anxiety worse, there are ways to manage caffeine-related anxiety issues.
What is caffeine, and how many people drink it?
Caffeine is a stimulant that works on the central nervous system. It is found naturally in the leaves and seeds of plants, although it’s also produced artificially for many commercial uses.
Coffee culture has been part of American life since the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when swapping from tea to coffee became patriotic duty. Statistics show seven in ten Americans drink coffee every week, 62% of whom drink coffee every day. The average American coffee drinker drinks just over three cups per day.
Remember: caffeine content varies according to what size and type of coffee you’re drinking. The average eight-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains 95 milligrams of caffeine, in comparison to the same size cup of instant coffee (62mg) or a single 1oz espresso (64mg).
What foods contain caffeine?
As well as coffee, tea (black and green), cola, soda, and energy drinks contain caffeine. It can also be found in foods such as chocolate, flavorings in ice cream, baked goods, and more. Check the labels of your favorite foods to get an idea of what caffeine levels you are consuming regularly.
How much caffeine should I be consuming?
The FDA suggests that healthy adults can consume 400 milligrams of caffeine a day (about four or five cups of coffee), although studies suggest the range of caffeine most likely to be effective without causing undesirable mood effects are within 100 to 600 mg. This amount is not generally associated with dangerous or negative effects.
However, as with most recommendations, it’s important to monitor what is happening for you when you consume caffeine. While four or five cups of coffee per day might be fine for one person, it could be too much for another.
What does caffeine do to the body?
1. Positive effects of caffeine on the body
Caffeine is the subject of many research studies into its beneficial effects, which makes sense given its widespread global use.
These studies have associated caffeine intake with increased mental alertness, cognitive function, heart rate, enhanced physical energy and performance, and as a valuable countermeasure to the effects of sleep deprivation.
Some studies also show that regular coffee consumption (three to five cups per day) can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cardiovascular diseases, as well as exerting optimal protective effects.
2. Negative effects of caffeine on the body
Caffeine may have a negative impact on various aspects of health, including:
- Glucose control
How long do the effects of caffeine last?
It’s important to remember that caffeine tolerance is different for everyone. Caffeine is rapidly absorbed by the body, with its short-term effects usually experienced between five and 30 minutes after consuming it.
The effects of caffeine can last up to 12 hours (depending on your metabolism), which is important to remember when you’re hoping to get a good night’s sleep.
Does caffeine affect anxiety?
The short answer is yes. Caffeine can trick your brain into releasing certain neurotransmitters that trigger an imbalance in brain chemicals.
Caffeine can negatively impact mental health and mood, causing:
- Jitters (aka ‘coffee jitters’)
- Rapid heart rate
- Digestive issues
Too much caffeine? Here’s how to calm down quickly.
If you’re experiencing some of the symptoms above, it might be that you’ve consumed too much caffeine.
While you will have to wait for the caffeine to be metabolized by your system, there are some things you can do to calm yourself down and make the process a little easier.
- Gentle movement such as going for a walk or some stretching such as yoga or pilates will help to calm your nervous system as well as helping with digestion and reducing headache symptoms.
- Drink plenty of water. This will help you flush the caffeine through your system. Caffeine causes dehydration which can, in turn, worsen the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, so make sure you keep hydrated.
- Meditation or mindful breathing can help your nervous system to de-stress. Sit quietly in a comfortable position with your eyes closed or lowered. Breathe in for a count of five, and then out for a count of five. Keep your concentration on your breathing and continue for five minutes.
How do I know if caffeine is the cause of my anxiety?
We are each wired differently, so it’s difficult to make generalizations. A 2010 study explored genetic variations in response to caffeine ingestion, noting that caffeine particularly affects adenosine receptors, which are found in almost all human body tissues and organs. The study highlighted one adenosine receptor in particular that was associated with caffeine-induced anxiety and sleep changes in caffeine-sensitive subjects.
So the questions you might want to ask are:
- How caffeine-sensitive am I?
- What is my predisposition to anxiety?
Finding out how caffeine-sensitive you are is fairly straightforward, although there is no formal or medical test to identify how caffeine-sensitive you might be. Instead, keep a journal over the course of a week or two.
Caffeine-sensitive individuals will notice an intense response soon after ingesting caffeine, similar to an adrenaline rush. You might feel like you’ve consumed much more caffeine than you have, and symptoms might last for much longer than expected.
Keep track of how you feel (physically, mentally, and emotionally) immediately after consuming caffeine, as well as for the rest of the day (including the evening and night making sure to record any sleep disturbance you experience).
Then, consider your answer to question two. What is my predisposition to anxiety? The two questions are related, and one study concluded that patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder are abnormally sensitive to caffeine.
Caffeine can aggravate anxiety and prompt panic attacks in patients with anxiety and panic disorder, so if you have been diagnosed with either of these conditions then reducing your caffeine intake would be sensible.
Even if you have not been diagnosed with an anxiety-related condition, try taking our anxiety test to find out your current levels of anxiety. This will help you make any links between what you have noted in your journal regarding caffeine sensitivity, and what feelings of anxiety you might be experiencing.
Caffeine addiction and withdrawal
Tolerance of caffeine happens rapidly, so it’s easy to find yourself ingesting more than you think, and to become dependent on caffeine, without realizing. It’s the number one most consumed drug in the world. Yes, it’s legal, but this status doesn’t mean it’s not addictive.
Caffeine withdrawal symptoms can make us feel anxious, irritable and low, and drinking too much can deplete our iron and calcium levels.
How to manage caffeine anxiety: Mike’s story
Mike is a middle-aged man who recently realized that his anxiety was related to caffeine intake.
“I’ve always had some form of anxiety bubbling away, patches of insomnia, and a foggy head, especially in the afternoons. This has been my norm for years.
“My doctor asked how much coffee I drink. It’s only one-two cups in the morning, but that’s been daily for the past 20 years. I am from a coffee-drinking family, and have always thought my intake was low.”
Mike’s doctor recommended reducing his caffeine intake as much as possible to see if this was the cause of his anxiety. Mike decided to eliminate caffeine from his diet completely.
“I went ‘cold turkey’ a few weeks ago. My first week was a nightmare of withdrawals and headaches.
“However, after five days, it’s like a life-changing improvement. I have no anxiety or headaches now, even after working 10-hour days in the office in the heat.
“I always thought it was something else, so I have always ignored the caffeine argument. Now, I’m pro decaf from the evidence of the last week or two.”
Between 9% and 30% of caffeine-consumers are thought to meet the criteria for dependence on caffeine. So if you are like Mike and wondering how caffeine affects you, there is only one definitive way to find out: remove caffeine from your diet.
How to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet
If you would like to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet, particularly if you think it might be causing your anxiety, there are several ways to do this.
The difficulty is anxiety can result from both high levels of caffeine and from caffeine withdrawal. You may therefore have to accept that things might feel worse before they feel better.
Even short periods of caffeine deprivation (for example, missing your regular morning coffee) can produce noticeable unpleasant caffeine withdrawal symptoms in habitual coffee drinkers. In a recent study, aspects of mood and performance were affected even by short-term caffeine withdrawal.
After only a few hours of caffeine deprivation, participants reported decreased energy, desire to socialize and ability to concentrate as well as increased drowsiness, lethargy, and yawning. Participants reported they did not feel like working, with headache and flu-like feelings reported by some.
With this in mind, think about when you might be able to eliminate caffeine with the least impact on your daily life. This will help you to decide whether to go ‘cold turkey’ or to reduce your caffeine gradually.
How to go ‘cold turkey’ from caffeine
Going cold turkey isn’t easy, regardless of the substance you’re trying to kick. Make sure you look after yourself during the process, and consider the following facts about quitting caffeine:
- Choose a time when you have fewer work or family pressures, and when you know you can better manage symptoms.
- Know the higher your caffeine intake, the more severe your symptoms might be, and the longer it may take for you to feel well again.
- Symptoms are likely to begin around 12 to 24 hours after you last ingested caffeine, and they can last between two and nine days.
- Make sure you don’t take painkillers containing caffeine (a common addition) to help with symptoms as this will maintain your dependency.
- Keep hydrated.
- Staying focused on your goal should help keep you motivated.
- Remember that going cold turkey is a difficult way to eliminate caffeine from your diet, so if you don’t succeed, consider tapering down instead.
How to taper down your caffeine intake
If you don’t want to go cold turkey, then the alternative is to slowly reduce (or taper) your caffeine intake over a longer period of time.
- Make a note of the ways you regularly ingest caffeine from food and drink, along with the time of day this typically occurs.
- If you usually drink five cups of coffee each day between 6am and 4pm, start by eliminating the 4pm cup. After a couple of days, eliminate the 2pm cup, and so on. The aim is to cut down both the volume of coffee you’re drinking, and reduce the timespan over which you’re drinking coffee.
- If you are finding it difficult to break the habit, try switching to decaf. This will satisfy your habit, and gives you the taste you are craving (if not the caffeine).
- Increase your consumption of caffeine-free beverages such as herbal teas or caffeine-free sodas, which will satisfy your thirst, keeping you hydrated but without compromising your plan.
- Continue to taper down your intake as well as paying attention to your anxiety symptoms. You might find you don’t need to completely eliminate caffeine to reduce your anxiety levels enough, or you might discover that even one cup of coffee per day is enough to cause significant anxiety.
If you are unable to remove caffeine from your life alone, The Center • A Place of HOPE can help. We are experienced at supporting clients with all kinds of dependencies and addictions. Call us today to talk through your issues, and to find out what treatment programs we can offer.
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