When I was in college, caffeine was my best friend. Actually, the relationship was more intimate than that — you could say that caffeine was my lover. Just the smell of a strong pot of coffee would get me excited and stimulated. And it was there to help get me through tough times, like all-nighters I pulled cramming for exams.
But ultimately, I learned that I was in a relationship with an abusive partner. The more I indulged, the less I got out of it, and the extreme ups were followed by equally extreme downs. I soon found myself trapped in a relationship that was physically and mentally unhealthy.
Unfortunately, breaking up with the drug seemed harder than staying in an abusive relationship, all because of what happens to the brain when you suddenly stop consuming it.
Despite the difficult break-up that any caffeine addict will inevitably face, as a neuroscientist I’m here to tell you that in the long run it is absolutely worth it. The purpose of this article is to explain how caffeine works, why it’s so addictive, and what to expect when you come off it.
First, we need to understand how caffeine works. The truth is that it’s a stimulant, plain and simple, not unlike cocaine or speed. Of course, it’s not quite as bad as an amphetamine but, if you drink enough of it, you will be as strung out as a crackhead, and when you crash you could experience a headache comparable to a “cocaine migraine.” Anyone who has made the mistake of pounding a pot of coffee or chugging a few Red Bulls for temporary superhuman stamina knows this.
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Caffeine stimulates the brain and body by blocking the action of a neurotransmitter called adenosine, which accumulates throughout the day and is responsible for making us eventually feel tired. When this chemical is blocked, we no longer feel fatigued when we should. It’s not that our body is getting more energy — it is simply being deceived about the fact that it needs rest and replenishing.
You can already start to see how this could be a very bad thing if caffeine is used regularly. But the blocking of adenosine is just the beginning of the story.
When your cup of coffee or energy drink blocks adenosine, it increases the levels of other neurotransmitters, like dopamine and norepinephrine, which are associated with cognitive processes like attention, alertness, and memory. This is why caffeine can make us feel like we have mental and physical superpowers. It can boost our focus and make us think we can take on the world. For tasks that require sustained attention for really long periods of time — like term papers, exams, and operating machines for hours on end — caffeine can seem like a gift from God.
But this is precisely what makes it so addictive. Because it makes you feel so good mentally and physically, and so momentarily productive, focused and creative, your brain quickly decides that caffeine is a good thing. It starts to expect caffeine, and at that point caffeine is now required for optimal human functioning.
The problem is, the drug simply can’t produce optimal performance forever, and the negative effects of caffeine dependency on mental health can be brutal.
When you get addicted to a substance, the brain adapts to its presence and becomes increasingly desensitized to its action. This means you will need to consume more and more of the drug to get the same effects. With caffeine addiction, the brain’s adenosine receptors become less sensitive to its effects, so now instead of a cup of coffee in the morning you add on a couple shots of espresso. Heavy use over the long term will inevitably disrupt your natural physiological and neurochemical balance. When this happens, it can have effects on cognition and mood that are the opposite of what the drug was doing before. Over time, the neurochemical imbalance can lead to disorders like insomnia and attention deficits.
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Since the aforementioned neurotransmitters all play a role in maintaining the function of the brain’s arousal system, a caffeine addict will begin to experience things like trouble sleeping due to a disturbed sleep-wake cycle. For example, you might have trouble getting to sleep, or you may not be able to stay asleep for as long as you normally would (or both, in most cases).
In addition to sleep trouble, the caffeine addict will eventually experience difficulty paying attention and staying focused — the thing that most use caffeine for in the first place. As the substance is abused, the feelings of jitteriness increase to the point that it becomes hard to sit still. At this point, even a massive amount of caffeine will no longer do the trick, and the more one consumes, the more jittery and unfocused they feel. This will lead some people to seek out stronger stimulants in hope of finding a cure for wandering attention, like Adderall, which is an amphetamine. While these stronger drugs may work for a certain amount of time, they inexorably lead to all the same cognitive problems that caffeine addiction ultimately causes, except in much more dramatic form. That’s why stimulant addiction is a slippery slope that’s best avoided altogether.
Caffeine dependency can also impair decision making. While its stimulating effect can increase the speed at which one makes decisions, this can come at the cost of the accuracy or quality of those choices. Studies have shown that caffeine increases the number of errors one makes when performing a decision task. Over time, caffeine addicts become more impulsive because they begin to act without thinking, and fail to engage the rational mind in the decision-making process. Impulsivity behavior can lead to inappropriate social behavior, aggression, and an inability to regulate one’s emotions.
If all that dysfunction weren’t bad enough, long-term caffeine abuse can lead to mental disorders, or exacerbate them. Since caffeine increases the production of dopamine, which is associated with the pleasure and reward system — known as the limbic system — addiction can cause changes in mood and personality. Heightened irritability and frequent mood swings can be expected, and getting along with others can become a real challenge. If that weren’t bad enough, it can also give you anxiety and depression, which for some people can increase the chances of mental breakdown or suicide. While the negative effects of caffeine aren’t as bad as heavy drugs, they can be enough to push someone who is already feeling unstable over the edge.
There’s no doubt that the negative effects of caffeine addiction are serious and scary, but most people who depend on the drug will argue that moderate consumption is the answer. Just about anything in excess can become dangerous — that is certainly true. The problem, as already mentioned, is that there is no way to stop the brain from becoming desensitized to the drug over time, requiring more of it to get the same result as before. You still experience the jittery stimulant effects, but the cognitive benefits begin to disappear. You start to feel like you’re stepping on the gas pedal in a car that’s running low on oil. It’s still getting you from A to B, but it’s doing damage to the machine in the process.
If you are experiencing any of the problems mentioned above, it may be time to break up with caffeine. Like all break-ups, things can be messy, but ultimately, it’s better to get out of an unhealthy relationship. Though I have to admit this is easier said than done. Why? Because the withdrawal symptoms you experience when you suddenly stop caffeine can be just as bad as, if not worse than, the negative effects that you felt from caffeine addiction. This is the “caffeine trap.” The trap is that once you start caffeine, it can be hard to quit for the following reasons.
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When we go cold turkey, the brain’s arousal system goes through some changes. The adenosine receptors that were previously being blocked by the caffeine are now free to do their job, which means you will feel tired, as if the day were over, but when it is just beginning. Dopamine and norepinephrine levels will decrease, leading to an inability to focus or stay alert. Feelings of anxiety and depression will set in, along with irritability and mood instability. Withdrawal could also lead to terrible headaches, muscle aches or spasms, and a general reduction in one’s sense of well-being. If that weren’t bad enough, a decrease in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) can cause forgetfulness and learning issues.
This is why most of us never give up. When we start to experience the withdrawal symptoms, we convince ourselves that we must have caffeine to function in life. But that’s the addiction talking. To actually be able to kick the caffeine habit, we have to build up a moment-to-moment awareness of how the drug is subconsciously convincing us that it is a good thing, and we have to also be constantly cognizant of the fact that the effects of withdrawal are temporary.
After the brain’s love affair with caffeine, it will need time to adjust and adapt to an existence without it. While the symptoms of quitting can last a few weeks or even a few months, it’s a small price to pay compared to a lifetime of dependency and imbalance. Once it is completely out of your system and your physiology has a chance to start restoring its normal balance, you will start noticing positive changes.
Assuming you are taking no other stimulants, your sleep will likely improve. You will notice that it is deeper and more restful than you remembered it could be. Your mood will improve and you will feel less on edge, because you aren’t constantly experiencing the extreme ups followed by the extreme downs. Life is much easier to manage when things are steady and stable. You will also likely notice across-the-board improvements in cognition, such as enhancements in attention, memory and mental stamina. In a nutshell, life will be better.
Breaking up with caffeine is hard to do because of the caffeine trap, but you will thank yourself for doing it in the long run. And for those who enjoy the taste and aroma of coffee, there’s always decaf.