April 24, 2015
You know who you are. You start every morning with a nice, hot cup of coffee, and if you don’t have it, well, the day just doesn’t start. Maybe you’ve tried to quit before and couldn’t take the withdrawal symptoms, or maybe you just missed the taste too much to let it go. Maybe you insist there’s nothing wrong with a little coffee addiction and stick to your routine like it’s as important to life as breathing. You’re not alone — 80 percent of adults say they drink coffee every day, according to the FDA — but does that necessarily mean that your coffee addiction is harmless?
Not really. While coffee is certainly less destructive than other drugs, here are some of the extra, but still natural, chemicals that coffee creates in your body once its caffeine enters your brain:
- Caffeine doesn’t energize you. Its molecular structure is so close to that of adenosine, a chemical that tells your body when it’s tired, that it can just block your brain’s adenosine receptors. This prevents adenosine from binding with those receptors and actually making you tired.
- All that adenosine that now has nowhere to go prompts your body to start making more adrenaline, which further boosts your energy but can cause sweaty palms and jitteriness if there’s too much for your body to handle.
- Speaking of feel-good chemicals, the dopamine your body naturally produces starts working a little bit better, meaning that you feel a little bit happier with each cup — up to four, that is. Research suggests that past that, you don’t get much more of a boost.
How Caffeine Addiction Happens
How does this make you addicted? It’s not just that the effects of coffee only last for about four to six hours. Those new or super-powered chemicals also interact with the rest of your body so much that they can actually change its makeup.
Most notably, your brain makes more and more adenosine receptors to balance out the ones that caffeine is constantly blocking. This is why coffee drinkers eventually need more than just one cup to feel awake. There are just too many receptors to plug, which means that they need more caffeine, dopamine and adrenaline to actually feel awake.
Your brain, then, is so used to operating a certain way — with more adenosine receptors than necessary and filled with caffeine instead — that quitting or just not having a cup on a certain day confuses it and leads to headaches.
Extra dopamine also contributes to the addiction. It’s the same chemical that harder drugs produce in your body to make you feel happier, too. Cocaine, for example, produces dopamine and prevents it from being absorbed. When your brain doesn’t get its fix, it leads to irritability and bad moods.
Caffeine has a different effect on every body, and can even affect you differently if you’re a woman at a certain point in her cycle or a smoker. Quitting is no different, and the good news is that if you can bear the headaches for a week or two, your brain will eventually get rid of the extra receptors and end the addiction.
Here are some of the other withdrawal symptoms you might experience, which are similar to withdrawals from any drug but not nearly as destructive (in case you haven’t experienced them for yourself):
- Headaches and sleepiness due to increased adenosine receptors
- Bad moods due to lack of dopamine
- Problems focusing due to a decreased level of caffeine
- Anxiety or jitteriness
You can minimize these effects by gradually cutting back your caffeine intake over the course of a few weeks, but that may not be necessary. While too much coffee can negatively impact your sleep patterns or blood pressure, a cup a day won’t harm you if you’re otherwise healthy. After a week or so, you may realize that you don’t need it after all.
Sarah Landrum is a freelance writer and health enthusiast sharing advice on living a happy and healthy life. She is also the founder of Punched Clocks, a career development site that helps professionals find happiness and success in their careers.