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What Is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, soft drinks, over-the-counter medications, and weight-loss aids. It is the most commonly used psychoactive drug used in the world and has physically and psychologically addictive characteristics. Caffeine-related disorder, or caffeine-use disorder, and caffeine withdrawal is recognized as a medical condition by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Caffeine addiction is not technically considered a diagnosable condition but the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders (DSM-5) believes caffeine should be further studied due to the side effects and stimulating effects similar to other recreational drugs.
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Effects of Caffeine
Light to moderate consumption of caffeine is considered safe and may even provide some health benefits such as increased alertness and fewer symptoms of depression. On the other hand, caffeine functions as a central nervous system stimulant that directly effects brain cells and can cause many negative side effects. Caffeine is absorbed and distributed quickly throughout the body and takes about 30-60 minutes to reach its maximal concentration in the blood. Its effects can last between three to nine hours, depending on the amount consumed.
The chemical structure of caffeine resembles that of a molecule called adenosine, which has a relaxing effect on the brain and can cause tiredness. When consumed, caffeine fits into adenosine receptors in the brain, blocking them and preventing adenosine from binding to them. As a result, blocked receptors stimulate the release of other natural stimulants, like dopamine, and allows them to work more effectively, increasing alertness and mental acuity.
250 to 300 mg of caffeine a day is considered a moderate amount. An average 8-ounce cup of coffee contains around 100 mg of caffeine, which is enough to increase alertness, concentration, and one’s metabolism. Drinking more than 10 cups of coffee a day is considered excessive and can result in caffeine poisoning. Daily caffeine consumption creates a physical addiction and can lead to “caffeine intoxication”.
Symptoms of caffeine overuse include:
- Flushed facial skin
- Increased urine production
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Irregular heartbeat
- Muscle twitching and shaking
If someone suspects they have overdosed on caffeine, they should call a local Poison Control to determine whether hospitalization is needed. Mixing alcohol with caffeine can increase the potency of side effects from both and can cause agitation. Many other drugs interact with caffeine and a person should consult a health care provider or pharmacist about possible side effects of mixing caffeine with medication.
A person can develop a tolerance when consuming caffeine on a regular basis and their brain cells may begin to produce more adenosine receptors to compensate for the ones blocked by caffeine. An increase in the number of receptors requires higher amounts of caffeine in order to feel its effects, so people who regularly drink coffee or energy drinks build up a tolerance over time.
Cutting off caffeine consumption abruptly or, “cold turkey,” leaves the brain with more receptors for adenosine to bind to and can produce strong feelings of tiredness, sometimes referred to as “crashing.” Other symptoms of caffeine withdrawals include:
- Fatigue or drowsiness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle Pain
Withdrawal symptoms can start 12 to 24 hours after the last caffeine dose, peak after a day or two and then go down gradually and can last up to nine days.
Although some experts believe regular use of caffeine is considered more of a habit than an addiction, the fact that it shares meaningful symptoms with other addictive substances has led to further research on caffeine-related disorders. A recent report shows that a significant amount of users develop symptoms often used by clinicians to diagnose addiction, such as:
- Continued use despite harm
- A persistent desire without successful efforts to control use
- Withdrawal symptoms when abstaining
- No longer participating in previously enjoyed activities
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Treatment for Caffeine Addiction
There is no standardized treatment for caffeine addiction since it is not recognized as a diagnosable condition. Certain people should completely avoid caffeine as it can worsen anxiety, insomnia, and cause heart issues. The risk of addiction, like with any substance, is affected by many factors and can vary from person to person. If an individual has trouble limiting their caffeine intake, or experiences withdrawal symptoms, they are most likely dependent and should talk to their physician about cutting back or eliminating caffeine consumption. If you feel like you or someone you love needs professional help dealing with a caffeine addiction, contact a treatment provider today to find out what your options are.
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