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Is Caffeine (or Coffee) Addiction Real? The Science in 2019

Caffeine can cause some physical dependence, but not so much as to warrant that dependence being called an addiction. Caffeine use is generally safe, with an overdose virtually impossible through regular consumption.
You should never take any stimulant, caffeine included, with alcohol. This can be dangerous.

Caffeine

Caffeine is perhaps the most widely used drug in the world, present naturally in many foods and drinks we consume. Most people associate it with coffee, although it is present in many energy drinks, tea, and more. It is also possible to buy it more directly in the form of caffeine powder or pills.
With somewhere between 60 to 90 percent of adults using caffeine regularly in the United States, consuming more than 200 mg of caffeine per day, many people understandably worry about the effects of this drug.

How Does Caffeine Affect the Body?

Caffeine is a central nervous system (CVS) stimulant. It can restore some mental alertness and cognitive function in a user, although it is inadequate as a sleep replacement and should not be used as such.
It is sometimes used in medications as an ingredient to help with pain relief. You should not mix caffeine with painkillers on your own without first talking to a doctor.
Caffeine has been linked to weight loss, helping to suppress appetite and also causing the digestion of food to use more energy. If you intend to use caffeine for this purpose, make sure you do so safely and continue to maintain a nutritious diet so that you lose weight safely.
While more research is needed, caffeine is believed to help with numerous health conditions. Studies have shown that regular coffee drinking may help, at least mildly, with the following:

  • Liver disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Parkinson’s disease

Most of the above could be seen as a positive, but caffeine can also have negative effects on the body.  While coffee has been linked to decreasing one’s risk of depression, it can also notably worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety in those who already have these conditions.
There is a relatively common genetic mutation that slows how the body metabolizes caffeine. Caffeine can increase the risk of heart disease for those with this mutation.
The body can grow at least mildly dependent on coffee. Caffeine enhances dopamine signaling in the brain, a mechanism common of much more serious drugs that often leads to addiction. However, this rise in dopamine is significantly smaller than what is seen in drugs generally classed as addictive.

How Serious Is Caffeine Dependency?

People who suddenly stop taking caffeine can experience these physical symptoms:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Depressed mood

These symptoms may last for a day or two. However, multiple sources on the subject will note that this physical dependence lacks the danger and far-reaching consequences that generally are looked at when determining whether a drug is “addictive.”
Simply put, it is very unlikely that caffeine dependence will have a serious negative impact on your life. The drug is also not especially difficult to quit taking completely.
While some people do claim caffeine is addictive, most do not go that far. Regardless, if you are concerned about caffeine dependence and withdrawal symptoms, you can choose to wean yourself off caffeine. Try drinking less coffee (or whatever else you are taking with caffeine in it) or lowering the dosage of caffeine per drink, such as drinking weaker coffee. This can reduce the effects of physical symptoms once you decide to quit.

Who Is Drinking Coffee?

The most popular caffeinated drink in the United States is by far is coffee. While the exact rate at which Americans drink coffee varies depending on the survey referenced, Americans have remained steady in their consumption of coffee for at least two decades.
Coffee drinkers tend to be older. One study estimated that 74 percent of people over age 55 drink at least one cup daily, compared to 50 percent of people who are 18 to 34 years old. Coffee drinkers tend to drink homebrewed coffee, a relatively unsurprising fact as this coffee tends to be the cheapest and easily accessible.
It was found that only 1 in 10 coffee drinkers has any desire to cut back on their coffee consumption. This is noteworthy as 26 percent of those surveyed considered themselves addicted to coffee.
While not universally true, this means most coffee drinkers do not see their regular use of coffee as having any serious detrimental effect on their lives. This does not mean such belief was always true, but it does mean those surveyed tended to believe it.
While a very different drug, a useful comparison would be to note about 7 in 10 smokers who admit they are addicted admit they would like to quit. This drug’s destructive potential and cost tend to be obvious to users, and its dangers are well-researched.

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Claims of Addiction

If people claim to be addicted to coffee on a survey, a question understandably arises: “Is coffee (and by extension, caffeine) addictive or not?” After all, the medical community has largely concluded that the answer is “no.”
While it is important to recognize that research does not account for all possibilities, and that a minority of users might actually fit the criteria to be considered “addicted” to coffee, it is also important to note that the word addicted is often overused in modern parlance.
Addiction is not just enjoying something a great deal and having little desire to stop its use. As laid out by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, major components of addiction include:

  • The inability to consistently abstain from using the substance
  • Using the drug causes significant problems with behavior and/or relationships
  • Dysfunctional emotional responses to problems, generally involving use of the drug
  • A progressive quality to use that will likely end in serious problems, including disability or death

If users in the survey discussed earlier truly were addicted to caffeine, more than 10 percent of those users would wish to quit. This is not to say the survey is completely invalid or that the users lied; instead, the use of the word addicted must be taken in its proper context. 

Most people who claimed to be addicted to coffee were using the term as it is often used in everyday speech, not as it is used among medical professionals.
Some people who drink coffee or otherwise consume caffeine do grow physically dependent. Again, this dependence is not extreme enough to warrant calling it an addiction.

Is Caffeine Dangerous?

At doses of around 300 mg (milligrams) a day, which is equivalent to about three cups of coffee, caffeine poses very little danger to the average person and can even have the health benefits already noted. The FDA recommends healthy adults try to limit their intake to about 400 mg a day (four to five cups of coffee). Beyond that dosing, some negative health impacts can be seen.
There is no set limit by the FDA for children, but the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages guardians from allowing their children to consume caffeine. The effects of caffeine on a child’s health and development are not fully known.
For reference, this is the average dosing of a few normally caffeinated drinks

  • 12-ounce can of cola: 35 to 45 mg of caffeine
  • 8-ounce energy drink: 70 to 150 mg of caffeine
  • 8-ounce cup of tea: 14 to 60 mg of caffeine
  • 8-ounce cup of coffee: 95 to 200 mg of caffeine

Some people experience problems drinking even a little caffeine, finding themselves unable to sleep and restless even after a single cup of tea. A variety of factors may contribute to this problem, from weight and sex to having a condition such as an anxiety disorder. You may wish to cut caffeine from your diet completely if you experience such sensitivity.

Despite some genuine health concerns, it is very difficult for an otherwise healthy person to experience serious, permanent damage from drinking caffeinated beverages. While basic dietary intake should still be accounted for, to actually die of a caffeine overdose one would have to consume what is the equivalent of 80 cups of strong coffee. This is well beyond even the high end of an avid coffee drinker’s intake.

It is more likely that one will experience only mild symptoms from drinking too much caffeine, on top of the potential health problems associated with caffeine discussed earlier. You may get diarrhea, experience sleep problems, and find yourself restless.

The Danger of Mixing Caffeine and Alcohol

There is one notable way in which caffeine can be dangerous or even deadly. When taken with alcohol, or other drugs that act as depressants, caffeine can dangerously impact a person’s ability to monitor what effects other drugs are having on their body.

This combination of drugs is dangerous enough that the United States FDA considers alcoholic energy beverages unsafe and bans their sale. While such beverages can be acquired in some other countries, their consumption is ill-advised, as is mixing energy beverages and alcohol.

The drugs are dangerous largely because stimulants counter many, although not all, of the obvious signs one has drunk too much alcohol (a depressant).

Man drinking coffee with several empty foam coffee cups in front of him on a table

By feeling less drunk, and with inhibitions still lowered, a person may then drink more alcohol to compensate.

The effect of taking a stimulant with a depressant creates a “push-pull” effect on the body, not unlike a speedball.

While caffeine is admittedly a mild stimulant, it can be very dangerous if a person consumes too much alcohol as the stimulant effects wear off. There is a much greater risk that they will accidentally experience alcohol poisoning, possibly overdosing on alcohol and having their breathing dangerously slowed or even stopped. This can be fatal.

Sources

(March 2017) Does Coffee Offer Health Benefits? Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/coffee-and-health/faq-20058339

(April 2017) Caffeine Myths and Facts. WebMD. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.webmd.com/diet/caffeine-myths-and-facts#1

(May 2016) Is Caffeine Really Addictive? National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for Teens. Retrieved August 2019 from https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/caffeine-really-addictive

(February 2018) Coffee Addiction and Why It Could Be Worth Shrinking Your Caffeine Habit. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-28/coffee-caffeine-withdrawal-jitters-daily-drug-for-many/9486776

(August 2013) This Is How Your Brain Becomes Addicted to Caffeine. Smithsonian. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/this-is-how-your-brain-becomes-addicted-to-caffeine-26861037/

(August 2017) What Does Caffeine Do to Your Body? MedicalNewsToday. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/285194.php

(March 2017) Caffeine: How Much Is Too Much? Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20045678

(July 2015) Americans' Coffee Consumption Is Steady, Few Want to Cut Back. Gallup. Retrieved August 2019 from https://news.gallup.com/poll/184388/americans-coffee-consumption-steady-few-cut-back.aspx

(March 2018) Current Coffee Consumer Trends: Inside the NCA’s 2018 Report. Daily Coffee News. Retrieved August 2019 from https://dailycoffeenews.com/2018/03/21/current-coffee-consumer-trends-inside-the-ncas-2018-report/

(September 2017) The Latest Scoop on the Health Benefits of Coffee. Harvard University. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-latest-scoop-on-the-health-benefits-of-coffee-2017092512429

(July 2019) Health Benefits and Risks of Drinking Coffee. MedicalNewsToday. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/270202.php

(May 2017) The Safety of Ingested Caffeine: A Comprehensive Review. Frontiers in Psychiatry. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5445139/

(October 2018) Fact Sheets – Alcohol and Caffeine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/caffeine-and-alcohol.htm

(December 2014) Energy Drink Consumption and the Risk of Alcohol Use Disorder Among a National Sample of Adolescents and Young Adults. Journal of Pediatrics. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25294603

(November 2010) Caffeinated Alcoholic Beverages. U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/caffeinated-alcoholic-beverages

(June 2013) Real Teens Ask About Speedballs. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for Teens. Retrieved August 2019 from https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/real-teens-ask-about-speedballs

(April 2011) Definition of Addiction. American Society of Addiction Medicine. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.asam.org/resources/definition-of-addiction

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