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Caffeine and Mental Health

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

This post is part of a series in which I talk about simple lifestyle factors everyone can focus on in order to support their mental wellness as much as possible. I always harp on lifestyle changes as an important aspect of therapy because I view health holistically. If you are taking care of yourself physically, it will almost always benefit your mental state. But if sleep, rest, nutrition, exercise, play, and social support are neglected, it will be harder to progress towards your mental wellness goals.

Today, let’s learn about caffeine use!

What is caffeine?


Caffeine is a stimulant that can cause people to feel more alert and prevent sleepiness. The effects vary from person to person. About 400mg of caffeine per day is considered safe for adults [1]. An 8oz cup of coffee has about 96mg of caffeine. A Bang Energy Drink has 300mg!


On a physical level, consuming too much caffeine can cause headaches, jitters, irritability, fast heart beat, insomnia and other symptoms [2]. Remember last week when we talked about sleep and mental health? Caffeine is definitely a piece of the puzzle there.


Does caffeine impact mental health?


As a therapist, my main concern is how caffeine impacts mental health. A review of relevant research on consumption of energy drinks (which by definition contain a lot of caffeine), revealed substantial correlations between regular energy drink consumption and an array of mental health symptoms [3].


Regular consumption of high levels of caffeine were found to be associated with worsening or recurring symptoms of anxiety, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, and certain personality disorders. Stress, tension, anxiety, and irritability often increase as caffeine consumption increases. In children and adolescents, reducing caffeine consumption appears related to improvements in sleep, mental health status, conduct, and hyperactivity [3].


One caveat: the research I reviewed did not definitively say that caffeine consumption causes mental health concerns. Rather, there is a correlation between caffeine consumption and mental health. In other words, the people who consume a lot of caffeine are also the people who tended to experience increased mental health symptoms. Also, lower levels of caffeine consumption are not found to be as correlated with mental health symptoms.


Caffeine addiction


Many people don’t realize that caffeine is an addictive substance. This means that your brain and body get used to certain levels of caffeine. When you try to cut back, you may experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms.


In the DSM 5 (aka the big book of mental health disorders), there is a category of caffeine-related disorders which include Caffeine Intoxication and Caffeine Withdrawal. Symptoms of caffeine intoxication occur after a high dose of caffeine (250mg or more) and include restlessness, nervousness, insomnia, upset stomach, agitation, changes in heart rhythm, and high energy.


Caffeine withdrawal occurs when you try to stop caffeine intake after a long period of daily use. Symptoms include headache, increased fatigue or drowsiness, depressed mood, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and flu-like symptoms.


If any of this sounds familiar, don’t panic. Most people don’t need to go to rehab for caffeine addiction. However, if you want to reduce or quit caffeine, it helps to be aware that there will be a transition period in which you probably don’t feel so hot.


Cutting back on caffeine


In my experience, quitting or reducing caffeine is best done gradually. If you are experiencing a flare up of mental health symptoms related to anxiety, depression, bipolar, or any other disorder, reducing caffeine may be really helpful in the long run. But, quitting caffeine cold turkey may make you feel much worse is the short term, which is never helpful when you are already struggling. Here’s what I recommend:


*Talk to your therapist:


If you are already working with a therapist, talk to them about your caffeine use. They can help assess whether it is a problem for you and help you come up with a plan that best suits your needs.


*Track your caffeine use:


Spend a couple of days tracking how much caffeine you actually consume. Don’t stress too much about milligrams of caffeine; just track how many beverages per day. This gives you a baseline.


*Set reasonable goals:


Once you have a baseline, you can set goals for yourself for cutting back. Let's say you’re drinking 5 caffeinated beverages per day. You may want to try to cut down by 1 drink every 5 days until you are only having 1 beverage per day. You may notice some symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, but they won’t be as pronounced as if you quit all at once. Again, working with a professional can help you set the best goals for your unique needs.


*Practice extra good self-care:


Whenever you are making changes in your life, it’s always good to amp up your self-care. Get a little extra rest, reach out for support, eat well, and talk kindly to yourself.


Alright folks! I think that about sums it up. As always, if you feel like you need any support around caffeine use, addiction, mental health, or reaching your goals, please reach out to me or another person you trust. Change is hard but with the right support, you can do hard things!


[1]https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20049372

[2]https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20045678

[3]https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/jcr.2015.0033


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