Caffeine is one of the 2 most widely used psychoactive drugs on earth (the other being alcohol). Psychoactive means that it has an effect on your psychological functioning (in addition to a number of physical effects). One of the primary effects is to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the stress response. This produces anger, fear, anxiety, increased heart rate and blood pressure, tremour, a jittery feeling, rapid or shallow breathing, change in pain sensitivity, and dozens of other changes.

Caffeine is an addictive drug. Heavy caffeine users may:

  • become psychologically dependent (believing that the drug is an essential part of their lives)
  • develop tolerance (requiring more caffeine over time to get the same effects)
  • undergo a withdrawal syndrome if they don't get it

Withdrawal symptoms include headache, drowsiness, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Many people discover that they are dependent on caffeine when they go for a day or 2 without coffee and develop splitting headaches.

Is addiction a serious problem?

Probably not, unless some of the effects of caffeine are disrupting your life. Have you been having difficulty with stress, anger, or anxiety recently? Do you have another disorder that stress makes worse (caffeine can aggravate tension headache, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, and numerous other physical problems)? If so, then you probably don't need a chemical that makes the stress response system even more active.

Caffeine may be a special problem in children, who tend to be more susceptible to its effects and who may suffer behavioural and attention problems while under the influence of caffeine.

How much caffeine does it take to become dependent?

Estimates vary, but the average is about 2½ cups of coffee per day. There are wide individual differences, however. Your age, weight, and personal sensitivity to caffeine all have an influence.

Wondering if caffeine is a problem for you?

Then you may wish to try going a month without caffeine to see if this helps you. If you decide to reduce your caffeine consumption, do so slowly to avoid the withdrawal symptoms. If you drink 10 cups of coffee a day, reduce to 8 cups, then 6, then 4, then 2, then one, then none. Stay at each level for 4 to 6 days to allow your body to adjust. Remember that you are giving up (or reducing) caffeine. This doesn't mean you have to give away your coffee mug or avoid the coffee shop. Drink as much herbal tea as you like, and feel free to have decaffeinated coffee, tea, and cola.

Changeways (a program developed at the Department of Psychology, Vancouver Hospital and Health Sciences Centre) 
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team