Caffeine has the ability to affect most of our vital organs, some for the worse, as we first read in The Science Behind Caffeine and Your Body. Despite being potentially harmful for those with heart conditions or stomach ailments, caffeine lovers continue to consume their beverage of choice, and for reasons they might not be conscious of.
According to Nicole Robertson, MD, a family physician with ProMedica Physicians, many adults often find themselves dependent on caffeine, forming a physical tolerance to the stimulant’s effects and subsequently needing more and more to maintain a level of function. Caffeine dependence is now part of the DSM – IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition) for substance dependence, which is a standard manual published by the American Psychiatric Association that helps professionals diagnose and treat mental disorders.
Dr. Robertson has seen some of her own patients faced with withdrawal effects after cutting caffeine from their diet for medical reasons.
“I had a recently diagnosed hypertensive patient and we were trying to do lifestyle modifications to get her blood pressure down. Removing her large consumption of caffeine was one of the modifications we attempted. She presented two weeks later and stated that she had headaches daily for the first week she was off of caffeine.”
Headaches are only one of the many possible withdrawal symptoms. They include:
- Decreased concentration
- Muscle pain
- Decreased cognition
Withdrawals can start as early as 24 hours after your last caffeinated beverage and last up to 9 days. Dr. Robertson says continued exposure can increase caffeine tolerance, meaning some people might require more and more to feel “normal.”
“These symptoms present themselves because the body is used to having the caffeine and the physiological effects it produces. For example, since caffeine is a stimulant you will feel tired or irritable.”
When to Call It Quits
She notes limiting caffeine or cutting it out all together is a good idea if it’s exacerbating pre-existing conditions, such as a heart condition, worsening acid reflux or if a person’s dependence is unhealthy. “I believe this is when a person must have caffeine to get through the day. If they wake up and need it to function and get through their daily activities,” she explains. “Also, if they experience withdrawal symptoms without caffeine.”
Dr. Robertson suggests tapering over time, which will lessen the withdrawal symptoms associated with quitting “cold turkey.” For someone who drinks three cups of coffee per day, she recommends decreasing by a half-cup every other day.
If the thought of living in a caffeine-free world makes you break into a sweat, there are some alternatives to help you feel refreshed or awake. “Ginseng is known to have a stimulating effect,” Dr. Robertson offers. “Increasing B-complex vitamins, drinking plenty of water, and last but not least, being physically active, whether that is doing cardio, yoga, or any other stretching exercise has been shown to increase energy levels, focus and cognition.”