We’re All Dangerously Addicted to Caffeine (And Don’t Realise It!)
For many people, a cup of coffee in the morning is a daily ritual. Around 1.4 billion cups are consumed every day, helping coffee drinkers to wake up and providing welcome energy boosts throughout the day. What could possibly be wrong with that, you may ask?
Well, if coffee is a normal part of your daily routine, there’s a good chance you feel even more tired and groggy in the morning — before you’ve drunk your first cup of coffee — than you would otherwise. Skip coffee altogether, and you may quickly find that you experience crippling withdrawal symptoms.
Don’t believe me? Try going just a few days without drinking any caffeine — be it coffee, tea, energy drinks or anything else that contains the drug.
If you’re normally a heavy coffee or tea drinker, you may notice even on the first caffeine-free day that you develop a headache. Perhaps you’ll feel more tired or lethargic than usual.
The second day without caffeine is even worse. The withdrawal symptoms play havoc on your body and affect your ability to concentrate, especially if you normally drink large amounts of caffeine. You may even experience what feels like migraines.
If you can manage to go a whole week without consuming caffeine, the withdrawal symptoms will eventually pass. But few people make it to this point without giving in and turning back to the one thing that can relieve the wicked symptoms: that sweet, sweet coffee.
How caffeine works
There are two “systems” within your body that regulate how awake or sleepy you feel, and they operate completely independently of each other. The first is the circadian rhythm, which is your body’s natural timekeeper and operates on a roughly 24-hour cycle. It’s your circadian rhythm that makes you feel naturally more awake in the morning, and sleepy in the late afternoon and evening. It takes time for your circadian rhythm to adjust to time zone changes. That’s why travellers often struggle with jet lag.
Caffeine has no impact on your body’s natural circadian rhythm. But it does impact adenosine, the other system that controls your appetite for sleep.
Adenosine is a chemical that slowly builds up in your brain as you remain awake, eventually making you tired and signalling that it’s time to sleep after you’ve been awake for many hours. The level of adenosine in your brain naturally reduces as you sleep and the chemical will be more or less absent after you wake up from a full night’s sleep. But if you don’t get a full night’s sleep, some adenosine will still be present at the start of the following day. That results in you feeling more tired, more quickly, the next day. This accumulating adenosine is also known as “sleep pressure”.
Caffeine is a stimulant that fights against adenosine to temporarily and artificially reduce the level of sleep pressure detected by your brain. It works by latching onto and blocking the receptors in your brain that would normally attract adenosine. These receptors will no longer detect adenosine while the caffeine is active, tricking your brain into thinking you are not tired.
According to Matthew Walker’s (excellent) book Why We Sleep, caffeine is most effective around half an hour after consuming it. But the substance has a long half-life of 5–7 hours, meaning the effect lingers long after you’ve finished your morning brew. This particular feature may not be so bad if you only drink coffee in the morning. But it can wreak havoc on your body’s natural sleep cycle if you drink caffeine in the afternoon or evening. After the 5–7 hour mark, 50% of the caffeine is still in your system, and it will take even more time to completely disappear.
The health risks of too much caffeine
In his book, Walker also explains the huge, wide-ranging health benefits of a good night’s sleep. These include a strengthened immune system; reduced risk of many diseases, obesity and cancer; better memory and improved emotional wellbeing. There was even a scientific study that proves sleep makes you more attractive. So interrupting your sleep with caffeine can have flow-on effects for many other areas of your health.
To make matters worse, those not getting enough sleep often self-medicate with… you guessed it, more caffeine.
Apart from the impact on sleep, side effects of regular caffeine consumption include increased heart rate, restlessness, tremors, anxiety, and even an increased risk of a heart attack.
To demonstrate the toxicity of caffeine as a drug, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in 1995 conducted a study where they exposed spiders to various different substances. Then, they observed the way each spider spun its web. The results, published in the NASA Tech Briefs journal, are staggering. The spider high on caffeine doesn’t even come close to constructing a structurally-sound web:
Caffeine is highly addictive
If you only drink caffeine in the morning, and only in moderation, it may be relatively harmless — and provide energy when you need it. But if you drink coffee habitually, every day, you quickly build up a tolerance to the caffeine. As a result, the effect of drinking the same dose of caffeine becomes progressively lower over time as your body comes to expect it.
Many people compensate for this by drinking more coffee. Again, the body adapts over time by building up an even higher tolerance. You can see how caffeine addiction quickly becomes a cycle that’s hard to break.
It can get to a point where you’re consuming caffeine to simply restore “normal” levels of alertness. Meanwhile, if you skip your morning coffee, the withdrawal symptoms make you feel more tired than a non-coffee drinker with the same sleeping pattern.
Many coffee drinkers don’t realise — or choose to ignore — just how addictive caffeine really is. It can be very hard to break the habit.
One of the world’s most readily-available drugs
Caffeine is one of the world’s most readily-available and most socially-acceptable drugs, and nobody seems to care. Worldwide, around 10 million tons of coffee is produced every year.
You don’t have to look hard to find cafés, coffee shops and milk bars which are conveniently located and easily accessible to almost everyone in the Western world. Many of those cafés have loyalty programs and customers that stop by for their caffeine fix multiple times per day. Coffee is a staple too in most supermarkets and workplaces. And that’s not to mention the many other products that contain caffeine including tea, energy drinks, soft drinks and cocoa.
Of course, there are also many economic benefits to the global production and distribution of coffee. The coffee supply chain employs millions of people worldwide, including farmers, couriers and baristas. That’s absolutely a good thing.
But when caffeine-filled products are so easily available to even small children and adolescents — some soft drinks and energy drinks are even marketed directly to children — that’s a problem. The adverse affects of caffeine addiction are most profound in children whose brain development depends on getting proper sleep.
I’m not saying that we should ban caffeine — everyone is free to make their own consumption choices. But I do think we as a society need to realise and acknowledge that caffeine is a drug which is addictive, abused and can have damaging health consequences.
How to give up a caffeine addiction
Giving up caffeine is not easy, but it’s worth the effort. In the long term, you’ll feel better for it.
If you give up “cold turkey”, you’ll almost certainly get withdrawal symptoms for the first few days. These will probably make you feel drowsy, induce headaches and make you irritable and grumpy. But these feelings do recede over time. After a week or two you should feel much better. If you’re prepared to sacrifice a few days of initially feeling miserable, that’s one way to do it.
At one point as a teenager, I was personally drinking around 7 cups of coffee a day. I knew it wasn’t healthy but it was extremely difficult to stop. I recall getting severe headaches and couldn’t concentrate for the first few days. But things did get better after a while.
Another option is to gradually reduce your caffeine intake over several weeks or months. For example, if you normally drink three cups of coffee per day, try cutting back initially to two. Or, switch from a large to a medium-sized beverage, then to small. You could also alter the amount of coffee in your drink, for example by ordering a half-shot of coffee. A good barista will even give you a 3/4 shot of coffee, if you want to take things more slowly.
You could also try switching your order initially from a cappuccino, latte or flat white to a mocha with a lower dosage of coffee. Then, eventually, from a mocha to a coffee-free hot chocolate.
I’ll be the first to admit that I love a cup of coffee in the morning.
I do enjoy the taste and the ritual of starting my day with a fresh cappuccino or latte. Nothing quite says “good morning” like the smell of hot coffee. But just because you’re giving up caffeine, doesn’t mean you have to give up the ritual. Nowadays, I usually just order a decaf coffee. The decaffeination process generally removes around 97% of caffeine (although, it’s worth noting, decaf is not entirely caffeine-free).
Ultimately, the best way to feel alert each morning is to get a full 8 hours of sleep every night. If you’re doing that, you shouldn’t need caffeine at all. I realise this may not be possible for people like shift workers and flight attendants. But by only drinking it no more than a few times per week — and certainly not every day — caffeine can still act as a welcome pick-me-up when you really need it.