Whether you've experienced it or not, you've probably heard of the term caffeine withdrawal—but what does that really mean? Can caffeine have similar effects to drugs, or is it just a colloquial term used to describe your yearning for a cup of coffee?
According to one study, the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) now recognizes caffeine withdrawal as a medical diagnosis. In fact, the disorder can produce some pretty negative symptoms, due to the fact that caffeine has stimulatory properties and addictive potential.
While caffeine may not be life-threatening like other substance or alcohol abuse, people are pretty dependent on it. In fact, one study says more than 90% of U.S. adults use it regularly, and, on average, they consume more than 200 mg (or two cups) of caffeine per day.
Board-certified physician Eva Selhub, M.D., says, "Anyone who drinks caffeine regularly and then stops suddenly can be prone to having withdrawal symptoms." If you do want to cut back on caffeine, it's important to do so gradually (more on that below).
Caffeine withdrawal symptoms.
If you stop drinking caffeine, there are a number of side effects you may experience:
When we consume caffeine, it causes the blood vessels in the brain to constrict, slowing blood flow. Meaning when caffeine consumption stops, blood flow to the brain increases.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Vermont explain that the change in cerebral blood flow is responsible for your withdrawal headaches.
Fatigue or drowsiness
Sure, you may drink coffee because you like the taste and the comfort of a warm mug. Even then, you probably rely on it to give you energy every now and then. Several studies have shown that caffeine can increase alertness and decrease fatigue in both large and moderate doses.
When you reduce your caffeine intake—especially when your body has become accustomed to it—you're likely to experience fatigue or drowsiness.
Changes in mood
Because of its stimulating properties, caffeine increases dopamine sensitivity in the brain. When you suddenly decrease your intake, dopamine sensitivity will also drop. This can lead to a depressed, anxious, or irritable mood, Selhub explains.
Similar to how caffeine affects energy levels, it can also boost mental focus. In one study, sleep-deprived individuals who consumed caffeine were able to improve concentration and accuracy in performing tasks.
Instead of relying on coffee to concentrate, Selhub recommends getting quality sleep to aid your cognitive function. You may also consider sipping on an adaptogenic tea, which might help improve concentration.
These symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, and myalgia (aka muscle pain), Selhub says. These are common symptoms of withdrawal from any kind of addiction.
If your bowel movements were scheduled around your caffeine intake, stopping may disrupt your routine and lead to constipation. To avoid this, you can start the day with a cup of hot water with lemon. This is a traditional Chinese medicine approach to constipation, and some research indicates warm water may help with bowel movement.
Dizziness is commonly associated with headaches and migraines. You may experience one or both of these withdrawal symptoms as a result of increased blood flow to the brain.
How long does caffeine withdrawal last?
A study conducted by John Hopkins Medicine, says caffeine withdrawal symptoms will generally occur 12 to 24 hours after stopping, and they can last anywhere from two to 10 days.
How to deal with caffeine withdrawal symptoms.
The best way to avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms is to slowly reduce your intake instead of quitting cold turkey, recommends holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, M.D.
There are a couple of ways you can do this effectively. Selhub recommends taking away half a cup of caffeine every week for about six weeks. "You can replace regular coffee with decaf, but I recommend drinking more water," she says.
If you're comforted by sipping something warm, Vora recommends this method: "Turn a few cups a day into half-caf, then transition those to black tea...to green tea...to just a few sips." Eventually, your caffeine intake will be so low, you should be able to quit altogether. From there, consider switching to herbal tea if you still want something warm to sip on.
One study shows exercise may help manage symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, as well. Selhub explains that exercise can increase dopamine and serotonin levels, which may have dropped with your caffeine decrease. Getting quality sleep and spending time in nature can have similar positive effects.
Selhub also recommends eating a balanced diet, full of antioxidants. "A little bit of dark chocolate might also help," she says. Now that's a recommendation we can get behind.
Caffeine affects everyone differently. In fact, for some, it can provide a variety of health benefits.
For example, green tea is high in antioxidants and has been proved to reduce inflammation, while coffee has been shown to have protective benefits against obesity, diabetes, and dementia, exercise science and nutrition expert Shawn Talbott, M.S., Ph.D., tells mbg.
For others, though, caffeine can lead to increased anxiety, disrupted sleep, or other negative side effects. If that's the case and you're looking to quit, be mindful of caffeine withdrawal by slowly cutting back. These caffeine alternatives may help fill the void.
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.