Is caffeine addictive? No, but it sure is habit forming

by Mark Miller July 28, 2016

Is caffeine addictive? No, but it sure is habit forming

A scan showing activity in a normal brain, left, and a drug addict’s brain. (Wikimedia Commons)

Caffeine isn’t addictive, but it sure is habit-forming. You don’t hear about jonesing coffee addicts robbing stores and hijacking motorists to get money for a fix. That’s because while caffeine does cause dependence, it isn’t in the same category as opiates or alcohol.

That’s a good thing that caffeine, unlike alcohol and drugs, does not cause disease, crime, financial ruin, automobile and other types of accidents and a breakdown in social interactions because in the United States 90 percent of people take it in one form or another.

Minor league

“Caffeine has minor-league side effects compared to real addictive drugs,” Dr. Peter Martin of Vanderbilt University medical school told Live Science. Martin is director of the Institute for Coffee Studies at Vanderbilt. He says coffee is not highly addictive.

People joke about being addicted to caffeine, but for some (not all) users it’s more of a physical dependence than an addiction. The dictionary calls addiction “a compulsive physiological and psychological need for a habit-forming substance.”

When a drug addict or alcoholic doesn’t get his poison, he may experience anxiety, jumpiness, shaking, trembling and fatigue. The addict who is unable to get a fix can sweat, vomit, lose sleep, lose appetite and have headaches and irritability.

The National Council on Drug Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has a long list of the signs of addiction here.

Caffeine isn’t addictive

Unlike true addicts, caffeine users don’t lose control of their habit, shun the society of friends and family, take risks and commit crimes to get their caffeine, and they don’t change their appearance, neglect hygiene and have big personality changes.

They do share some traits with outright addicts, including building a tolerance for caffeine where they need more of it to get the same stimulating effects as they had the first few times they used it. They also may build a dependence to it to where they feel some withdrawal symptoms if they don’t get their usual dose.

Withdrawal symptoms

Caffeine withdrawal symptoms for some but not all regular users include headaches, irritability, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating and sleepiness. In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists caffeine withdrawal as a mental health condition.

And the Journal of Caffeine Researchsaid in a 2013 article:

Caffeine is the most commonly used drug in the world. Although consumption of low to moderate doses of caffeine is generally safe, an increasing number of clinical studies are showing that some caffeine users become dependent on the drug and are unable to reduce consumption despite knowledge of recurrent health problems associated with continued use. Thus, the World Health Organization and some health care professionals recognize caffeine dependence as a clinical disorder.

Caffeine Use Disorder

The DSM-5 manual says caffeine use disorder, as it is called, requires further study. The journal article says that disorder is marked by:

(1) persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control caffeine use, (2) continued caffeine use despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by caffeine, and (3) characteristic caffeine withdrawal syndrome or caffeine use to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

The prevalence of caffeine use disorder is unknown because the most recent studies on caffeine intake among U.S. users were done more than 15 years ago.

That Live Science article cited above states that regular caffeine users who wake up groggy, depressed and tired are actually experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

But WebMD has an article about caffeine myths that states Caffeine Myth No. 1: Caffeine Is Addictive. The article says:

This one has some truth to it, depending on what you mean by “addictive.” Caffeine is a stimulant to the central nervous system, and regular use of caffeine does cause mild physical dependence. But caffeine doesn’t threaten your physical, social, or economic health the way addictive drugs do. (Although after seeing your monthly spending at the coffee shop, you might disagree!)

The thrill is gone

Viter Energy Mints recently featured a blog on caffeine cycling that describes how users stop taking caffeine temporarily so they can get the euphoria and thrill of the stimulant that they got at first. The blog states:

Caffeine cycling for chronic users brings back that old black magic. If you’re a regular or chronic caffeine user, you may have noticed the stimulating effects of the substance aren’t as strong as when you first started to take caffeine. If you want to experience that near-bliss you used to get from that first cup of java, you can do caffeine cycling where you stop taking it for a while and then start again.

People also do cycling for marijuana, which is considered addictive for a small minority of users. Only about 9 percent of people even become dependent on marijuana, or 17 percent of people who begin using it in their teens.

Needless to say, cycling is not an option for users of Oxycontin and similar drugs, heroin and other opiates, alcohol, methamphetamines and cocaine. Once you’re addicted to that stuff, you need to stop all use and never touch it again or almost certainly risk a relapse.

And unlike alcohol and drug addicts, caffeine users need not continually increase their dose because they’re not trying to get high. Alcoholics, for example, drink more and more alcohol to get drunk (at least during early- and middle-stage alcoholism). But caffeine users can take their usual dose of, say, two cups of coffee and leave it at that.

To get off caffeine, take it in smaller and smaller daily doses for a couple of weeks. You will find that you won’t get headaches or be extremely sleepy if you wean yourself from caffeine. But you may miss the ritual and flavor.

Mark Miller
Mark Miller

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