Caffeine - Drug Addiction

A cup of tea or coffee is a great way to start the day and can also give you a lift when you need one. Many of us often feel we cannot face the world unless we have had our ‘caffeine fix’ or tend to console ourselves with a bar of chocolate if we are on a downer.

However caffeine has had something of a bad press lately and is seen as a potentially harmful substance which needs to be consumed with great care.

Too much caffeine can lead to an addiction: and whilst we don’t think people are going to overdose on Earl Grey it is worth taking note of how much caffeine you consume in a day and reducing this if necessary.

We are not advocating that you give up your morning latte or cappuccino just that you keep an eye on the number of coffees and other forms of caffeine you have in a day. Look at replacing some of these with herbal teas or decaf coffee if need be.

What is caffeine? 

Caffeine is a powerful stimulant which is naturally produced in plants, e.g. the coffee bean plant although it can be produced by artificial means. It is defined as a ‘drug’ because it causes physical and mental changes in the body and is highly addictive.

Caffeine is found in many products which include:

  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Cola
  • Energy drinks e.g. Red Bull
  • Chocolate
  • Diet pills
  • Some forms of medication e.g. pain relief

Caffeine stimulates your heart and central nervous system and also raises blood pressure although this appears to be a short term effect.

It stimulates the brain in a similar way to amphetamines or cocaine - which is why it is so addictive –  but these are at a much lower level.

Which substance contains the most caffeine?

Coffee comes out top especially filter or freshly ground coffee. This contains between 70 to 125mg per cup. A bar of chocolate is next at around 70mg per bar followed by cola then tea.

High energy drinks such as Red Bull contain around 80mg of caffeine.

So, consuming a couple of cans of cola in a day, a bar of chocolate and then a cup of coffee will ratchet up your caffeine intake to a high level. There is a baseline figure of 300mg of caffeine a day which may sound a lot but it is very easy to reach that level and go beyond it.

Can caffeine be good for your health?

Researchers have found that moderate amounts of caffeine can be good for your health, in particular, a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. 

(Source: BBC website, April 2008)

It has also been linked to a reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease, Type 2 diabetes and liver disease.

Tea and coffee both contain antioxidants which may protect against heart disease and cancer although this is inconclusive.

There are people who argue that caffeine is good for weight loss as it appears to suppress the appetite and speed up the metabolism: hence the attraction of ‘weight loss’ pills which contain caffeine and claim to ‘melt away’ any excess fat. However the reality is that they burn off a much smaller amount of fat than originally thought.

Effects of caffeine

These include:

  • Heightened awareness
  • Increased focus and concentration
  • Instant ‘buzz’ (energy boost)
  • Acts as a mild diuretic
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Dilated pupils
  • Removes calcium from the body
  • Increased heart rate
  • ‘Fight or flight’ response (release of stress hormones)

The main reason for consuming caffeine is that of an ‘energy boost’. If you are feeling tired, need to stay awake to finish a project or have a job which involves driving long distances then caffeine does all of these things.

If it is consumed in moderate amounts then it isn’t usually a problem but when this becomes a situation in which you feel as if need a cup of coffee or can of cola then you have developed a dependency to caffeine. This is known as ‘caffeinism’.

What is ‘caffeinism?’

This is the name given to people who are dependent upon caffeine. They are likely to consume ever increasing amounts to prevent withdrawal symptoms and to function as per normal. They will also experience side effects such as:

  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Heart palpitations
  • Frequent urination
  • Shakes/tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Hyperactivity

If you consume more than 600mg of caffeine per day then you have caffeinism. More than this, for example 1000mg or more is within the toxic range and can be dangerous, e.g. irregular heart beat.

How does caffeine cause an addiction?

This is caused by a chemical or ‘neurotransmitter’ called ‘dopamine’. Dopamine triggers the ‘pleasure’ centre of the brain and caffeine interacts with this in such a way which makes us feel good and on top of the world.

But this also results in a lack of sleep. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain which are responsible for the restful deep sleep that we all need.

When this is blocked it results in feelings of irritability, disrupted sleep patterns and a craving for caffeine in order to wake up properly in the morning.

This is where many people reach for a cup of coffee in order to function on a normal basis. Without it they feel tired, lethargic and unable to operate as normal.

This leads to a process or feedback in which someone drinks coffee to stave off tiredness which then disrupts their sleep so they wake up tired in the morning and then drink more coffee…

Adenosine receptors are sites which are located on nerve cells within the brain which slows the firing of these cells and enables drowsiness and sleep to take place. But caffeine can bind to these receptors which then increases nerve cell activity, triggers the release of adrenaline (from the pituitary gland) and places the body in a state of heightened anticipation.

If you experience any of this or the effects mentioned above then the natural response to this is to stop consuming caffeine. However, stopping suddenly can cause its own problems.

Caffeine withdrawal

If you stop your caffeine consumption immediately then what happens is you experience caffeine withdrawals symptoms such as:

  • Tiredness
  • Headaches
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Poor memory
  • Nausea

It is better to reduce your caffeine consumption slowly over a period of several weeks.

Help with caffeine addiction

If you realise that you are drinking too much coffee or consume excessive caffeine as a whole then it is a case of reducing your intake over time.

This includes:

  • Switching to decaf coffee/tea or herbal teas
  • Drinking small amounts of coffee or less frequently
  • Drink plenty of water and other similar fluids
  • Make a list of the benefits of reducing caffeine
  • Exercise, take up yoga or some other healthy activity
  • Take painkillers for headaches
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