Many people have experienced a “need” for a cup of coffee when they wake up in the morning and before they face any of the issues of their day. When they do not get their coffee, they might experience headaches or an inability to concentrate. They can become irritable and angry. Overall, the physical symptoms of caffeine withdrawal are the same as those experienced by individuals who are addicted to more dangerous substances. Even after those symptoms subside, a caffeine addict might still find himself craving the warmth, taste, and aroma of a hot cup of coffee. Those cravings mirror the type of cravings that drug addict experience, and that can result in a relapse after all physical withdrawal symptoms have ended.
Caffeine is a Drug
Caffeine is, in every sense, an addictive drug. Its addictive qualities are not perceived to be as nefarious as the addictive qualities of substances like heroin or methylamphetamines, but it is addictive nonetheless. Caffeine increases energy levels and promotes wakefulness, but it can also lead to headaches, nausea, dehydration, and restlessness. As a person consumes more and more caffeine, his body and nervous system develop a tolerance to it and he requires greater amounts of caffeine to achieve the same stimulating effects. Like other addictive drugs, caffeine stimulates the production of certain neurotransmitters in a person’s brain. When neurotransmitter levels begin to drop, as happens when a person stops consuming caffeine, that person’s brain sends signals out the increase cravings for the caffeine.
Treating Caffeine Addiction
Caffeine addictions can typically be interrupted within one or two weeks, but the psychological draw of caffeine can remain long after a physical connection has been broken. Again, as with other addictive substances, these cravings are analogous to the cravings that cause relapses in drug addicts. Because so many people consume caffeine and develop caffeine addictions through consumption of coffee, colas, energy drinks, and other beverages, the craving patterns they feel when they stop drinking caffeinated beverages can give them strong insights and a better understanding of the much stronger cravings that a drug addict might experience.
Some research has suggested that caffeine addiction and the mechanisms which create that addiction can be a gateway to drug or alcohol abuse. A person who is a casual or regular user of drugs or alcohol might be tempted to alleviate the discomfort associated with caffeine withdrawal by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Caffeine also prevents the absorption of certain vitamins that a person needs to support healthy metabolism. Low levels of those nutrients can make a person feel lethargic or cranky, which can further increase cravings for some substance that can give that person a quick pick-me-up. Addiction counselors will often try to limit their patients’ caffeine intake to prevent these overlapping cravings.
For the time being and likely well into the future, public health officials have no intention of banning caffeine or listing it as a controlled substance. Rather, they are working to create a greater awareness of how caffeine cravings might have a crossover effect with relapses in drug and alcohol addiction.
If you have questions about your own caffeine intake or on how your reliance on caffeine might increase your risks of drug or alcohol abuse, please call Sustain Recovery Services at (949) 407-9052. We will not take your morning coffee away from you, but we can help you to gain a better understanding of how your brain and body are reacting to that coffee.