Caffeine helps your focus and mood, but when the side effects outweigh the benefits, withdrawal symptoms make quitting hard. Learn what to do about it.
Caffeine is the most widely consumed mood-altering substance in the world. (1)
You may be among the billions of people who start the day with a caffeinated drink — coffee, tea, yerba mate, energy drinks, or soda.
You probably like the energy, drive, and focus that caffeine gives you.
You may savor the taste, the aroma, and the ritual of consuming your favorite caffeinated beverage.
But not everyone reacts the same to this very common stimulant.
Some people find that caffeine becomes something they need, rather than something they enjoy.
It becomes an addiction.
And like all addictions, quitting is tough and caffeine withdrawal has some unpleasant side effects.
Caffeine Addiction & Withdrawal: Recognized Psychiatric Disorders
Caffeine is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget it’s a psychoactive drug.
By definition, this means that caffeine changes brain function, mood, and behavior.
Caffeine readily enters the brain where it alters the activity of several neurotransmitters. (2)
It constricts blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the brain.
But is caffeine truly addictive?
To be considered addictive, a substance must meet certain criteria. (5)
Let’s see how caffeine stacks up against the three hallmarks of addiction — dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal. (6)
You crave caffeine, spend a good deal of money on it, and arrange your day to acquire it.
How many trips to Starbucks have you made this week?
You need to keep consuming more caffeine to get the same effect.
Eventually you need it just to function normally.
Do you feel like you need caffeine to face the day?
It’s hard to quit and you experience withdrawal symptoms if your caffeine consumption is interrupted.
Have you ever skipped your “normal dose” of caffeine? Or tried to quit? How’d that go?
Caffeine certainly seems to fit the bill as addictive.
The World Health Organization recognizes caffeine addiction as a clinical disorder. (7)
Numerous studies have concluded that some caffeine users become genuinely addicted.
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You can find links to dozens of studies that support this in Caffeine Use Disorder: A Comprehensive Review and Research Agenda.
(“Caffeine use disorder” is currently the preferred term for caffeine addiction.)
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the American Psychiatric Association’s bible of mental disorders.
The most recent edition, the DSM-5, now lists four caffeine-related disorders: (8)
- caffeine intoxication
- caffeine-induced anxiety disorder
- caffeine-induced sleep disorder
- caffeine withdrawal
Caffeine addiction is not yet considered a recognized disorder in the DSM-5, but has been included as a condition that merits further study. (9)
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Is Caffeine a Harmless Addiction?
Caffeine addiction is generally considered a “harmless” addiction since:
- Unlike hard-core drugs, caffeine dependence does not ruin lives.
- Caffeine withdrawal is relatively short-lived and rarely serious compared to that of street drugs or addictive prescription drugs.
- The most popular caffeine delivery systems — coffee and various teas — have long histories of safe use and offer many health benefits.
- Consuming caffeinated drinks is not only socially acceptable, it’s an integral thread in the tapestry of modern society.
Imagine the nationwide productivity slump if Starbucks’ baristas went on strike!
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If you think you’re addicted to coffee, tea, caffeinated sodas, or energy drinks, are there any compelling reasons to quit?
After all, you might well argue that your caffeine addiction is a legal vice and your friends haven’t done an intervention yet.
Besides, there are many proven health benefits of caffeine, especially when the source is a naturally caffeinated drink like coffee, tea, or yerba mate.
It can reduce your risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease, and diabetes. (12)
It may even help you live longer.
It increases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes you motivated and productive. (13)
It also increases acetylcholine, the brain chemical associated with memory and learning. (14)
But do these benefits make up for the downside of caffeine?
Let’s take a closer look at the side effects of caffeine to see if there’s a good trade-off.
Side Effects of Regular Caffeine Consumption
Caffeine raises your levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine, making you feel more stressed out, irritable, and anxious. (15)
Caffeine can cause a racing heart and palpitations.
And it can definitely keep you up at night.
Coffee, in particular, can cause heartburn, indigestion, and GERD, and mess with your intestinal flora.
Caffeine impacts the activity of the most prevalent and important neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and glutamate. (18)
By inhibiting the calming neurotransmitter GABA, caffeine leads to more anxiety and insomnia. (19)
The latest research shows that caffeine is more addictive than previously thought. (22)
And being hooked means that if you are ever cut off from your source, you can expect to start experiencing caffeine withdrawal symptoms within 12-24 hours.
“Caffeine is the Trojan horse. It looks like a gift but instead delivers adrenal stress, low blood sugar, mood and energy swings, fatigue, depression, malnutrition, and disturbed sleep.”
— Stephen Cherniske, author of Caffeine Blues
Caffeine Can Make You Tired
One of the most surprising side effects of caffeine is that it can make you tired.
That’s because caffeine does not provide true energy and is not even a direct stimulant.
Caffeine works indirectly by binding to receptors in your brain for adenosine, a brain chemical that acts like a brake on brain activity.
Adenosine helps you register that you are tired and need to rest.
When your system is flooded with caffeine, adenosine can no longer turn off your brain.
So your brain on caffeine is like a car with no brakes and the accelerator pedal jammed to the floor.
Caffeine creates a vicious cycle of temporary energy boosts with subsequent crashes, interrupted sleep, and a need for more caffeine.
Caffeine Does Not Mix Well With Medications
Caffeine should not be taken with many prescription medications.
Drugs.com lists nearly 50 of them.
Pharmacist Suzy Cohen, RPh, reveals some alarming interactions between caffeine and prescription drugs, especially those taken for mood disorders, in her bestselling book Drug Muggers.
The combination of caffeine and antidepressants can cause panic attacks, tremors, and insomnia.
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When consumed with ADHD drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, caffeine increases nervousness, irritability, insomnia, and heart rhythm abnormalities.
Caffeine undermines the effectiveness of anti-anxiety medications, sleeping pills, and lithium prescribed for bipolar disorder.
It’s advised that women avoid caffeine when pregnant or breastfeeding.
And few women are aware that they should not mix birth control pills with caffeine since they slow the breakdown of caffeine and magnify its side effects. (23)
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How Much Caffeine Does It Take to Get Addicted?
How much caffeine do you need to consume to become addicted?
Not as much as you might think.
An average daily consumption of caffeine is 280 mg, but 100 mg per day is enough to lead to physical dependence and significant withdrawal symptoms.
A Johns Hopkins Medicine review of over 170 years of caffeine withdrawal research concluded that you can become addicted to caffeine from as little as one daily cup of coffee. (24)
For an accurate assessment of your daily caffeine consumption, you’ll find the caffeine content of hundreds of drinks and foods in this caffeine database.
Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms
The side effects experienced by those quitting a caffeine habit can vary wildly.
Some people experience only general malaise, while others can feel like they’ve come down with a bad case of the flu.
By far the most commonly reported symptom is headache, affecting half of those who quit caffeine. (25)
You don’t need to quit cold turkey to get a headache.
Even a small decline in caffeine consumption is enough to trigger a caffeine withdrawal headache.
Using EEGs, researchers have found that caffeine abstinence alters brainwave activity and causes an increase in blood flow to the brain. (26)
It’s believed that these changes trigger withdrawal headaches.
- brain fog
- fatigue and sleepiness
- hot and cold spells
- impaired general cognition
- impaired motor skills
- mood disturbances
- muscle aches and stiffness
- nausea and/or vomiting
- poor concentration
- reduced motivation
As you might expect, those who consume the most caffeine can expect to experience the worst side effects. (29)
How Long Does Caffeine Withdrawal Last?
If you are in the midst of caffeine withdrawal or contemplating kicking the habit, you’ll certainly want to know how long caffeine withdrawal lasts.
There is no simple answer.
It depends largely on your body’s ability to metabolize caffeine.
This is determined by many factors including your general health, age, weight, and gender, the medications you take, whether or not you smoke or drink, the health of your liver, the foods you eat, and even your genes. (30, 31, 32, 33, 34)
Scientists from Harvard School of Public Health have found a handful of genes that directly influence how your body metabolizes caffeine. (35)
The duration of caffeine withdrawal also depends on whether you quit abruptly or gradually.
Quitting gradually will extend the duration, but symptoms will be less severe.
Caffeine Withdrawal Timeline
- Withdrawal symptoms normally start within 12 to 24 hours, but can take up to 36 hours to kick in.
- These symptoms usually peak between 20 and 51 hours.
- The worst side effects are generally over within 2 to 9 days, although sometimes it can take up to 12 days.
During this adjustment period you might continue to experience brain fog and lethargy.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to get through the process faster to feel more like your usual self sooner.
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Should You Quit Cold Turkey or Gradually?
There are two schools of thought about the best way to beat a caffeine addiction — quit suddenly or quit gradually.
The key to deciding is knowing yourself and how you normally respond to these kinds of challenges.
From a neuroscience perspective, taking small steps gives you time to actually rewire your brain to create new, healthier habits.
However, many people are excited by big goals — like quitting cold turkey.
Setting bold goals provides a nice boost of the neurotransmitter dopamine, known as the “motivation molecule.”
Johns Hopkins University researchers, who have studied caffeine withdrawal in depth, endorse a gradual approach to minimize withdrawal symptoms. (38)
Here’s a simple plan to quit drinking coffee gradually by swapping out 25% regular coffee with decaffeinated coffee each week for one month.
This plan can be adapted to any other caffeinated beverage that has a decaffeinated option as well.
A major advantage of this stepped plan is that you don’t need to make any behavioral changes to succeed.
And since there are many neuroprotective compounds in coffee besides caffeine, you can feel confident that your decaf coffee is still a brain-healthy drink. (39)
Minimize Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal with The 25% Solution
Week 1: Drink 75% regular, 25% decaf.
Week 2: Drink 50% regular, 50% decaf.
Week 3: Drink 25% regular, 75% decaf.
Week 4: Drink 100% decaf.
Easing the Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal
Whether you decide to quit immediately or gradually, here are a few things you can do to make your journey to being caffeine-free easier and ultimately more successful.
Supplements for Caffeine Withdrawal
There’s little scientific evidence that supplements can help with caffeine withdrawal, but here are some that are anecdotally reported to be helpful:
- vitamin C and B complex
- minerals calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc
- amino acids tyrosine and DL-phenylalanine
A group of herbal remedies known as adaptogens may be useful for caffeine withdrawal.
Adaptogens mitigate the effects of stress while bringing the body into a state of balance — simultaneously calming and boosting energy without being overstimulating.
Some adaptogens to consider are ginseng, ginger, ashwagandha, Bacopa monnieri, and Rhodiola rosea.
All have been used for thousands of years and are well established as safe and effective.
Essential Oils for Caffeine Withdrawal Headaches
Another natural way to treat caffeine withdrawal headaches is with essential oils.
You may think of essential oils as lightweight therapies, yet inhaling these scents or rubbing them on your skin has been scientifically proven to relieve headaches.
Amazingly, rosemary essential oil helps with the symptoms of opium withdrawal, so it should be helpful for caffeine withdrawal as well. (40)
Other essential oils known to reduce headache pain include:
Pamper Yourself During Caffeine Withdrawal
While going through caffeine withdrawal, take extra good care of yourself.
Drink lots of pure water, eat well, and avoid stress as much as possible.
If you can swing it, take a few days off work to chill out.
(If you don’t, you may have to call in sick anyway.)
Nourish yourself mentally.
Spend time in nature, take long walks, get a massage, take hot baths, or meditate.
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If you get tired, give yourself permission to take a nap.
Tell those who care about you what you are doing so they will be understanding of your mood swings.
You might give tapping a try to relieve irritability and tension.
This simple technique is based on acupressure principles and may make it easier to get through caffeine withdrawal.
Switch to Green Tea
If you can’t face the idea of life without caffeine, switch to green tea instead of aiming for complete caffeine abstinence.
It has much less caffeine — 25 mg per cup compared to 100 mg per cup in an average cup of coffee.
But more importantly, green tea also contains naturally occurring relaxants that prevent caffeine jitters.
Unlike coffee and energy drinks which help you focus at the expense of feeling wired, green tea puts you in an ideal state of “calm attentiveness.”
Be Clear on Your Motivations for Quitting Caffeine
Lastly, you need to be very clear on what’s in it for you to be caffeine-free.
When caffeine withdrawal gets rough, you will undoubtedly question why you decided to quit in the first place.
If you aren’t clear on why you’re quitting, it will be very easy to throw in the towel.
For this reason, I suggest you write down your reasons for quitting caffeine.
You may want to quit because caffeine ruins your sleep, increases your stress, or makes you feel anxious.
Maybe you take one of the many medications that should not be mixed with caffeine.
Or perhaps you want to save all that coffee shop money for something more important.
Also, I urge you to write down how bad you feel when you are going through caffeine withdrawal.
(We all tend to forget these things!)
That will help you avoid a relapse so that you can quit for good.
Caffeine Addiction and Withdrawal: Take the Next Step
Caffeinated drinks in moderation offer many health benefits.
But for those who become addicted, the drawbacks usually outweigh the benefits.
Caffeine is the culprit behind several recognized psychiatric disorders.
It meets the criteria of an addictive substance: dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal.
It exacerbates stress and anxiety.
Caffeine can create a vicious cycle of feeling tired, needing more caffeine, and insomnia.
If you decide to give it up, you can ease the pain of caffeine withdrawal by weaning yourself gradually and taking appropriate self-care measures.
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