Caffeine Dependency: Why it Happens and How to Avoid it

For many of us, our morning routine will look something like this: get out of bed, shower, get dressed, have breakfast and the most important thing of all - a cup of coffee. Tea, coffee and many other drinks contain caffeine, which gives us that little extra energy boost that we often need to get through our busy days. But before we know it, we have developed a dependency and can’t function in our everyday lives without it. 

Caffeine is one of the most commonly consumed ingredients, with a shocking 80% of the world population consuming a caffeinated product every day. So, it is not surprising that a large proportion of the world is addicted. Here, we delve into the science behind how coffee affects the brain which leads to dependency, and offer insights into tell-tale signs of addiction and how to avoid it.

What is caffeine? 

Caffeine is a natural chemical most commonly found in tea and coffee, and many other products such as cola and cocoa. It has stimulant effects on the central nervous system, heart, muscles and centers that control blood pressure, which can make us feel more alert.

For this reason, caffeinated products are usually consumed to prevent feelings of tiredness and increase concentration and mood. Many of us use caffeine as a tool to help us get through a long busy day and avoid the afternoon slump, or to help us wake-up in the morning.

Low consumption of caffeine is generally considered to be safe, however excessive intake can lead to a number of negative side effects including anxiety, nausea, restlessness, tremors, headaches and trouble sleeping. Experts recommend no more than 400mg of caffeine a day, the equivalent to approximately four cups of coffee.

How is caffeine addictive?

Sustained consumption of this little pick me up can lead to dependence fairly quickly. This is because caffeine creates chemical changes in the brain and increases the feeling of alertness that people crave.

The structure of a caffeine molecule closely resembles that of a chemical called adenosine, which is present in the brain and promotes feelings of tiredness. This means caffeine can bind to the same receptors and block adenosine, resulting in an increase in alertness and energy until caffeine is metabolized and adenosine can work normally again. Caffeine also increases the release of the pleasure hormone, dopamine, as well as the fight or flight hormone adrenaline, which makes us feel more alert.

As with other drugs and alcohol, daily consumption of caffeine increases the body's tolerance to it, so higher quantities are needed to achieve the same desired effects. This is because constant caffeine consumption alters the brain's chemistry and physical characteristics, by increasing the number of adenosine receptors in an attempt to maintain equilibrium. This means more caffeine molecules are needed to block the extra receptors, if it is to have an effect. 

Signs of caffeine addiction

Many people that drink caffeine on a regular basis will start to become dependent. As your brain becomes used to operating under these conditions, once you stop ingesting caffeine, you are likely to suffer from withdrawal symptoms. 

Tell tales signs that you may have a caffeine addiction are:

  • Unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control caffeine use
  • An increased tolerance and large amounts of caffeine needed to achieve desired effect
  • Cravings
  • Withdrawal symptoms such as headache, irritability, fatigue, anxiety, low mood, difficulty concentrating
  • Unable to function without a daily dose of caffeine

How to avoid caffeine dependency

If you are reading this and are concerned you might have a caffeine dependency, don't worry, you are not alone. It is estimated that more than a quarter of people who use caffeine have a dependency.

The bottom line is, the more caffeine you consume, the more dependent you will become. So, to avoid dependency, we recommend simply lowering your caffeine intake. Why not try decaf coffee and replace one coffee a day with this - perhaps later in the day to avoid impacts on sleep. Replacing or rotating coffee with other hot drinks, such as herbal tea, may also help reduce caffeine intake. Exercise is a natural stimulant on the body and nervous system, so regular daily exercise may help increase your energy levels and lower your dependency on coffee for preventing tiredness. Increasing your water intake may also help increase feelings of alertness.

By making these lifestyle changes to lower your caffeine intake, your tolerance should start to decrease and your brain chemistry will slowly return to normal. Everyone is different, so it is important to find out your own tolerance levels to caffeine and determine when you start to feel dependent. 

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