It’s Sunday afternoon, 3pm, and I just spent the last few minutes readying my afternoon cup of tea. The irony is not lost on me that as I sit down to write this article on caffeine, I am sipping a beverage that yes, does contain caffeine.
It’s no surprise really, as caffeine is the most widely and frequently used psychoactive drug in the world, with more than 90% of adults in the US consuming some sort of caffeine every day. More than 80% drink coffee, making it a $30 billion dollar a year industry.
Because we are such a caffeinated culture, we tend to overlook the fact that caffeine is in fact a drug, and is being overused by many. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has added three related disorders to its list of official diagnoses: caffeine intoxication, caffeine-related anxiety, and caffeine-related sleep disorders. We now know that caffeine can and does exacerbate anxiety and panic disorders.
So how does this seemingly harmless cup of Joe cause many to have feelings of panic and anxiety? Let me explain what caffeine does when it enters the body …
First of all, we are actually supposed to feel sleepy after working hard, exercising or getting very little sleep. A molecule called adenosine is released by the brain, and tells the nervous system it’s time to relax and will begin to slow down the brain’s signaling functions. Caffeine’s ability to give us that “buzz” we desire is because it is a direct competitor to adenosine. Our nerve cells cannot tell the difference between the two, and will allow either caffeine or adenosine to bind to the receptor sites in the brain.
What happens next is that when caffeine has filled up all of the receptor sites in the brain, instead of slowing down, the cells speed up and begin firing rapidly, which then tells the brain we have an emergency. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in and good old “fight or flight” begins. That “buzz” we crave, is actually our bodies getting ready to run by dilating the pupils, increasing the heart rate, and releasing sugar into the blood so it’s readily available to our muscles.
So keeping your brain in a chronic state of emergency cannot possibly be good, right?
When consumed in moderation, a small dose of caffeine can help to wake us up, and make us more mentally alert. The problem is that due to our busy world, we need those pick me ups more and more frequently, and the more caffeine we have, the more tolerant we become. In fact, the more caffeine we consume, the more receptors our brain actually makes, which causes those effects to be less pronounced, causing us to need more caffeine … can anyone say hamster wheel?
So how exactly does increased caffeine cause increased anxiety and maybe even depression? Remember when I said that caffeine blocks adenosine? Well, if we are consuming large amounts of caffeine with no way to calm down the central nervous system, caffeine can trigger a whole host of sensations such as sweaty palms, a pounding heart, ringing in the ears, etc. For those individuals predisposed to anxiety, this can lead to a full-blown panic attack.
Caffeine is also known to stimulate production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can regulate mood, including anger and aggression. When we start to withdraw from caffeine (usually after about 12 hours), this decrease in serotonin can trigger unwanted behavior such as irritability, anxiety and lack of concentration. Over time, this can lead to depression.
As with most things, not everything we put into our bodies is 100% good or bad. Just because a little is good does not mean that more is better. Most of the time it comes down to how much we are consuming and with what frequency. A little caffeine can help to sharpen our focus when needed, but too much can alter how our brain is able to deal with stress.
Learning how to listen to what our bodies need (including how much sleep to get) is an important part in being mindful and aware. Don’t be afraid to enjoy that cup of coffee with a friend or a few squares of dark chocolate after dinner, but if you find yourself having to rely on caffeine just to get through the day, it’s time to make a change. Caffeine is a drug and we need to treat it as such.