The Effects of Caffeine on Depression

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Scientific evidence supports that caffeine can benefit depression, but it’s not right for everyone and all situations. Learn if caffeine can help you.

Caffeine is the most widely consumed mood-altering substance.

It’s found in the most popular beverages around the world, including tea, coffee, energy drinks, and many sodas.

Caffeine is not only universally available, its consumption is actively encouraged among most people.

In most American cities and towns, it would be hard to find an intersection that does not have at least one coffee shop.

Caffeine is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget that it’s a psychoactive drug.

By definition, this means that caffeine changes brain function, mood, and behavior.

What does this mean for people who drink caffeine and live with depression?

Evidence That Caffeine Reduces the Risk of Depression

There’s a substantial body of scientific evidence that caffeine is beneficial for reducing the risk of depression.

These studies include hundreds of thousands of participants of all age groups in countries around the world.

A major review of studies that included over 346,000 participants examined the link between caffeine and depression. (1)

Researchers concluded that caffeine, particularly in coffee, was protective against depression and that coffee worked better than tea, probably due to tea’s lower caffeine content.

When researchers in China performed a meta-analysis that included over 330,000 study participants, they also concluded that coffee and caffeine consumption were significantly associated with a decreased risk of depression. (2)

A large study of over 50,000 women found that women who consumed at least 2 to 4 cups of coffee per day were less likely to develop depression, compared to those who drank one cup per week. (3)

This study also found that drinking decaffeinated coffee did not lower the risk of depression.

A study that followed 80,000 women for 10 years found that coffee drinking lowered their risk of suicide. (4)

A study of over 10,000 people of all age groups linked coffee consumption with reduced risk of depression. (5)

A small Finnish study on middle-aged men with depression found that drinking coffee reduced the risk of depression and that the more coffee they consumed, the lower their risk of depression. (6)

Note that since 80% of caffeine consumption is in the form of coffee, most, but not all, studies use coffee as a source of caffeine. (7)

One Japanese study found the risk of depression to be inversely proportional to either green tea or coffee consumption. (8)

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How Caffeine Alleviates Depression Symptoms

You’ll notice that all of the studies above involved lowering the risk of depression and did not address alleviating symptoms of depression.

So, you may be eager to know whether caffeine can help your mood right now.

Caffeine is a fascinating molecule that exerts a surprising number of influences on brain health and function.

No one, including the experts, knows for sure what causes depression.

The prevailing theories are that depression is caused by: (9)

  • neurotransmitter imbalance
  • brain inflammation
  • underlying health conditions
  • genetic propensity
  • emotional trauma
  • stressful life circumstances

While caffeine doesn’t address all these potential causes, there are two main ways that caffeine can help reduce depressive symptoms.

Caffeine Increases Mood-Boosting Brain Chemicals

Caffeine readily enters the brain where it alters the activity of two neurotransmitters of particular importance for depression: serotonin and dopamine. (10)

Serotonin is the neurotransmitter most closely linked to depression.

This is why selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are thought to work by increasing brain levels of serotonin, are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants. (11)

But these drugs work for only 40% of those who use them, so clearly, low serotonin is not always the cause. (12)

Dopamine dysregulation can also be an underlying cause of depression, although it’s not widely recognized as such. (13)

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter most closely associated with motivation, focus, and productivity. (14)

The symptoms of dopamine-based depression differ from those of serotonin-based depression.

Dopamine-based depression expresses itself as lethargy and lack of enjoyment of life, while serotonin-based depression tends to be accompanied by anxiety.

People with depression caused by low dopamine often self-medicate with …

  • caffeine
  • sugar
  • nicotine
  • illicit drugs

… to temporarily feel more motivated and productive.

This is no coincidence — all these substances increase dopamine.

Caffeine also makes dopamine in the brain work better by increasing the amount of it that binds to dopamine receptors. (15)

Dopamine is also in charge of your “pleasure-reward system” and you can get a boost of dopamine by the expectation of a need being met.

This is what happens as you anticipate your next cup of coffee.

Simply the expectation of your next caffeinated beverage can improve your mood, even if you don’t have any! (16)

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Coffee and Caffeine Are Anti-Inflammatory

There’s a promising theory that depression is not caused by neurotransmitter imbalances, but is a result of chronic brain inflammation.

A little-known fact about the brain is that it has its own immune system.

Immune system messengers called cytokines can activate inflammation in the brain, destroying tissue and altering brain function. (17)

The release of pro-inflammatory cytokines can contribute to: (1819)

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • memory loss
  • inability to focus
  • schizophrenia
  • bipolar disorder
  • increased risk of suicide

Coffee contains a slew of anti-inflammatory compounds — chlorogenic acid, ferulic acid, caffeic acid, nicotinic acid, trigonelline, quinolinic acid, tannic acid, and pyrogallic acid — that can reduce the brain inflammation associated with depression. (2021)

Who Should Not Use Caffeine for Depression

Just because many people benefit from caffeine doesn’t mean that it’s right for everyone.

There are a few demographics that should not use caffeine as a way to self-medicate their depression.

1. Don’t Use Caffeine If You Have Anxiety or Psychiatric Disorder

Caffeine use has been linked to mental disorders of all kinds, including:

  • anxiety
  • panic
  • depression
  • insomnia
  • eating disorders

It’s fairly common for people with psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia to self-medicate with caffeine, often consuming large amounts. (22)

It’s suspected that they do this to reduce their medication’s side effects, specifically to improve their cognitive function and boost their ability to feel pleasure.

It’s been recognized since the late 1980s that caffeine may be counterproductive in these cases.

Taking schizophrenia patients off caffeine has been found to improve many of their symptoms. (23)

Depression and anxiety commonly occur together and there’s no doubt that caffeine exacerbates anxiety.

Caffeine consumption delivers a double whammy when you are under stress.

It causes stress hormones to skyrocket, while simultaneously inhibiting GABA, the neurotransmitter of relaxation. (2425)

If you have both depression and anxiety, as many people do, the benefits of caffeine for depression almost certainly do not outweigh the cost of increased anxiety.

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2. Minimize Caffeine Intake If You Have Insomnia

Caffeine achieves many of its effects by blocking the activity of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that makes you tired and sleepy.

If you already have trouble sleeping, caffeine can make your insomnia worse which, in turn, can fuel your depression.

Caffeine-induced sleep disorder is so problematic that it’s a recognized psychiatric disorder. (26)

If you have problems sleeping and you still want to drink caffeinated drinks, drink them early in the day, at least six hours before bedtime. (27)

It can take as little as two, or as many as ten, hours after caffeine ingestion to metabolize half of it. (28)

It might be worth your effort to figure out your ideal cut-off time, then stick with it.

Personally, I can’t drink caffeine after 2 pm and still expect to get a good night’s sleep.

3. Caffeine and Prescription Antidepressants: A Dangerous Combination

Caffeine should not be mixed with nearly 50 kinds of medications, including several kinds of antidepressants. (29)

Caffeine can greatly amplify the effects of: (30)

  • tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs)
  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • selective noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRI)

SSRIs significantly slow the breakdown of caffeine, increasing caffeine’s half-life tenfold to 56 hours, resulting in restlessness and anxiety. (31)

And when excessive amounts of caffeine are consumed, the combination of caffeine and SSRIs can cause seizures and serotonin syndrome, a potentially serious condition. (32)

A fourth kind of antidepressant, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, can boost the effects of caffeine and cause acute high blood pressure. (33)

In her bestselling book Drug Muggerpharmacist Suzy Cohen, RPh, reveals that the combination of caffeine and prescription antidepressants can trigger tremors and panic attacks.

Caffeine also affects other psychiatric medicines, including antipsychotic medications and lithium. (34)

4. Women Who Should Not Use Caffeine for Depression

There are several reasons that women, in particular, should be mindful of their caffeine intake.

Caffeine can exacerbate the symptoms of: (35, 36, 37)

  • premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • menopause
  • postpartum depression

Being pregnant or taking birth control pills doubles the usual half-life of caffeine, giving you twice the jolt from any caffeine you consume. (38)

Besides, caffeine is not good for an unborn child since it restricts growth, resulting in lower birth weights. (39)

5. Kids and Teens Should Not Use Caffeine for Depression

There’s some evidence that caffeine contributes to depression, particularly in young consumers.

One study on middle school students linked caffeine use to:

  • increased risk of depression
  • lower academic achievement
  • more stress and insomnia

The more caffeine students drank, the worse the severity of their depression. (40)

Another study on the effects of caffeine in adolescents concurred that it increased the risk of depression. (41)

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Caffeine Withdrawal Fuels Depression

As an addictive substance, caffeine not only impacts your mood when you use it, but when you stop using it as well. (42)

Researchers have been able to detect measurable changes in the brain that occur when caffeine consumers go through withdrawal.

Using EEGs, they found that caffeine abstinence alters brainwave activity and increases blood flow to the brain. (43)

While increased blood flow to the brain is generally a good thing, this change induces caffeine withdrawal’s most common symptom — headaches.

In fact, 50% of those who cut back on caffeine experience headaches. (44)

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), widely considered psychiatry’s “bible,” lists both caffeine addiction and caffeine withdrawal as recognized mental disorders. (45)

Researchers have found clusters of other common caffeine withdrawal symptoms.

They have identified the most common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal to be: (46)

  • depressed mood
  • lack of focus
  • fatigue
  • brain fog
  • low motivation
  • irritability
  • flu-like symptoms (nausea, vomiting, and muscle pain)

The good news is that symptoms are temporary and usually reach their peak within 2 to 9 days. (47)

However, be forewarned that if you are seriously addicted to caffeine, it can take months to feel normal again.

During this adjustment period, it’s not uncommon to feel more tired and mentally foggy than usual.

Caffeine Dosage for Depression

Let’s look at what research has found about the ideal caffeine dosage for depression.

To Lower Your Risk

If your goal is to lower your risk of depression, the Nurses’ Health Study, which followed over 50,000 women for 10 years, can provide some guidelines. (48)

Drinking 2 to 3 cups per day reduced the risk of depression by 15% over the course of the study. (49)

Drinking 4 cups of more lowered the risk by 20%.

To Improve Your Mood

But if your goal is to use caffeine to improve your mood now, the answer is not at all clear-cut.

There are many variables that impact how efficiently your body metabolizes caffeine: (5051525354)

  • your general health
  • age
  • weight
  • gender
  • medications you take
  • foods you eat
  • your genes

So, you will have to determine your ideal caffeine dosage by trial and error.

Start low, around 100 mg per day, and gradually work your way up to larger amounts.

Notice how you respond.

The US Food and Drug Administration has set the upper safe limit of caffeine intake at 400 mg per day. (55)

At higher doses, caffeine becomes counterproductive by increasing anxiety and insomnia.

This is not a good trade-off, especially for people who have both depression and anxiety, which is very common. (56)

This chart provides a general idea of the amount of caffeine in popular caffeinated beverages.

chart showing caffeine content of different drinks
The amount of caffeine in popular caffeinated beverages. (Image courtesy of Funders and Founders)

The Best and Worst Sources of Caffeine for Depression

While coffee is by far the most common source of caffeine in most Western countries, it’s not necessarily the best source for treating depression.

A better source may be green tea.

Green tea’s impressive antidepressant effects are thought to be due to its numerous healthy compounds, including: (57)

  • the B vitamin folate, a known mood booster
  • polyphenols, neuroprotective antioxidants with known antidepressant properties
  • l-theanine, a compound unique to all true teas (Camellia sinensis), increases the feel-good neurotransmitters and induces a state of “attentive relaxation”

The worst sources of caffeine are those that also contain sugar, such as:

  • soda
  • energy drinks
  • highly sweetened coffee drinks

Caffeine and sugar compound each other’s negative effects and may be worse for depression than either alone. (58)

Caffeine and Depression: Take the Next Step

Caffeine is the drug of choice for boosting mood, energy, alertness, and productivity.

A large body of scientific evidence supports caffeine consumption as beneficial for depression, especially for the long-term prevention of depression.

Whether caffeine can help your mood now depends on the many factors that influence how well you metabolize caffeine.

And be aware that caffeine is definitely not right for everyone.

It’s not advisable to self-medicate with caffeine if you have anxiety, take an antidepressant, or fall into other risk categories.

Other than that, the only way to know for sure if caffeine can help your symptoms of depression is to give it a try.

READ NEXT: All About Caffeine Addiction and Withdrawal & How to Quit