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Anxiety and caffeine are not friends

Sandhya Basu


Have you ever started your day without a cup of coffee or tea? Do you get a little irritated without your daily dose of morning caffeine? Are you having trouble sleeping at night? If the answer to all these questions is “yes,” then this blog may help.





Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the effects of caffeine on our daily lives, I would like to assure that you are not alone! Approximately 88% of households in India consume tea on a daily basis. At the same time, the south of India has more coffee consumers at around 26%. In short, almost everyone consumes either tea or coffee and sometimes even both. So, what is the big deal about it?

The deal is the ingredient that you consume first thing in the morning—“caffeine.” I am not saying that caffeine is your enemy. In fact, for some people, it can help with concentration and even give you the energy you need to start your day. But if you cross the healthy limits of consuming coffee or tea, it may lead to mental health issues. Anxiety is one of the mental health issues that is predominantly induced by caffeine.


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5): the guide used by mental health professionals worldwide to diagnose psychological disorders lists caffeine-related disorders. Some of these include caffeine intoxication, caffeine withdrawal, and other caffeine-induced disorders such as anxiety and sleep disorders.

Symptoms of such disorders include restlessness, gastrointestinal issues, sleeplessness, nervousness, headaches, fatigue, etc. Though not as dangerous as opioid-withdrawal challenges, caffeine withdrawal symptoms include depressed mood, concentration issues, anxiousness, and even tremors.


Such symptoms surface due to the biological changes caused by caffeine. The chemical structure of caffeine is quite similar to a neuromodulator called adenosine. It is because of adenosine that our sleep and arousal patterns are maintained, and we feel energized as it triggers excitability in neurons and increases blood flow in our brains. The catch is that when we consume caffeine, it holds on to the adenosine receptors in the brain and resists its function. As a result, a different hormone called dopamine starts flowing freely. This brings on feeling fresh, good, energized, and alert—pretty much what we need to start our day! The catch is that while caffeine gives us the energy we need, it also depletes some of our body’s essential resources.


Caffeine is also bad news for those who are prone to anxiety or panic attacks. Naturally, caffeine induces sensations such as increased heartbeat, body heat, and breathing rate. These sensations mimic anxiety symptoms. Headaches, sweating, insomnia, restlessness are other common symptoms of caffeine-triggered anxiousness. Consuming more than 200 mg of caffeine can even aggravate panic attacks and anxiousness in those sensitive to it.


Another possible disadvantage of caffeine dependency stems from the ‘caffeine-induced vicious cycle.’ Suppose one spends a sleepless night due to insomnia caused by caffeine, feels low the following day, then drinks coffee or tea to feel fresh, and the cycle starts again. And when one tries to come out of the cycle, caffeine withdrawal symptoms begin to surface. This further adds to caffeine’s addictive factor.


A lot of what I wrote depends on our levels of caffeine intake. While consuming lower doses of caffeine can produce positive effects (wellbeing, energy, etc.), higher doses can have adverse effects like increased palpitations, anxiousness, sleeplessness, etc. So, if you are planning to have a second or a third cup of coffee/tea today, then you may want to rethink for the sake of your wellbeing.


Now that you are aware of the consequences of consuming caffeine (at above-normal levels), you might want to limit its intake. Though there is no one size fits all approach to caffeine consumption, you can try the following research-based practices:

  1. Try not to have coffee or tea right after you wake up. Keep at least an hour gap between the time you wake up and the time of your drink. When we wake up, our body produces cortisol (a natural energy booster) and does not need an external dose of energy. You can save your coffee or tea breaks for an early afternoon or mid-morning since that’s when our cortisol levels start to decline.

  2. If you are not heavily dependent on coffee or tea, then try to limit drinking them only when you require a functional boost, such as before a long meeting.

  3. Try to avoid caffeine before six hours of your bedtime, as it can interfere with your sleep patterns.

  4. According to mental health professionals, ways in which one can effectively stop other addictive practices like smoking or overeating can also work in reducing the over-consumption of caffeine. It can be as simple as asking a friend to help you cut down on your intake or maintaining a daily record of your consumption. Gradually reducing your caffeine intake can avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms.

The omnipresence of caffeine in our lives can make us turn a blind eye to our dependency. But in some cases, our behavior and psychological patterns indicate the adverse consequences of caffeine intake. It is important that we acknowledge and accept these patterns to lead a healthy life.


References

  1. Magalhães, R., Picó-Pérez, M., Esteves, M., Vieira, R., Castanho, T. C., Amorim, L., ... & Sousa, N. (2021). Habitual coffee drinkers display a distinct pattern of brain functional connectivity. Molecular psychiatry, 1-10.

  2. Nehlig, A., Daval, J. L., & Debry, G. (1992). Caffeine and the central nervous system: mechanisms of action, biochemical, metabolic and psychostimulant effects. Brain Research Reviews, 17(2), 139-170.

  3. Richards, G., & Smith, A. (2015). Caffeine consumption and self-assessed stress, anxiety, and depression in secondary school children. Journal of psychopharmacology, 29(12), 1236-1247.

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