To drink or not to drink
The highs and lows of caffeine addiction.
However it comes—from just plain black coffee, the more refined mug of Earl Grey, or from the extreme, less palatable options of energy drinks and pills—many of us will be turning to caffeine to get us through the dark, busy days of the semester.
But before you up your intake, I thought I would share my own experience with the darker side of caffeine.
We are well aware of the benefits: clarify of focus, heightened ability to concentrate, energy, etc. And then there’s the warming, welcoming taste of fresh coffee in the morning.
But few are aware that habitual caffeine consumption can have a less pleasant side.
Last fall, I was working hard to finish a thesis. I happened to share a love for the taste and buzz provided by coffee, with my roommate. This inevitably led to copious amounts of coffee consumption on a more or less daily basis.
Then for some strange reason, perhaps in a twist of pride, wanting to prove my mastery over my own body, I decided I would refrain from drinking coffee every few days.
It didn’t go so well.
More often than not, I found myself sidelined to the couch with excruciating headaches that no nap could cure. But even more debilitating, I was wracked with bouts of intense anxiety. And I certainly was not a bundle of fun to be around.
In the middle of one such failed nap, I finally connected the dots between these seemingly random bouts of anxiety and my decision to stop drinking coffee every day. Unable to sleep, I jumped up and started researching caffeine dependence and withdrawal. With the first study I found, I was pegged—headaches, anxiousness, lack of motivation, disrupted sleep patterns.
While caffeine isn’t addictive, stopping consumption after it has become a habit can lead to withdrawal symptoms, a state acknowledged as a clinical disorder by Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
A 2004 John Hopkins study reviewed 57 other studies to find a consensus on the matter. The main effects they found were headache, fatigue or drowsiness, dysphoric mood including depression and irritability, difficulty concentrating, and flu-like symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and muscle pain or stiffness.
The symptoms usually occur within 12-24 hours after quitting consumption and typically last between two and nine days.
The severity of these effects increases relative to the daily dosage. Yet abstinence from as low as 100 milligrams, the amount in one small cup of coffee, can still lead to withdrawal effects.
For me this knowledge was empowering. I didn’t like being so dependent on coffee to function in the world. I waited till Christmas break and then slowly weaned myself off, eventually switching to decaf.
We need to seriously weigh the benefits against the costs. For me, the anxiety produced by a chemical dependence on caffeine was not worth the increased productivity. I had to learn how to maintain a healthier rhythm in order to get my work done without being dependent.
I love coffee. It’s truly a beautiful thing, one of the good gifts we have been given to enjoy. But like any pleasurable, habit-forming substance, like alcohol or cigarettes, we need to decide how much we want it to be a part of our life. I’m now at a point where I can drink coffee again regularly. But I’ve learned to manage my consumption so as to avoid withdrawal. I try not to drink it every day. Sometimes I choose tea or decaf instead. I felt like an old man for a while, but I do feel better.