Blog post

Are you addicted to caffeine?

Students are now back at university, which means deadlines will soon be approaching and the late nights will begin. Professor James Elander, Head of Centre for Psychological Research at the University of Derby, talks about caffeine addiction and the effects it has on the body.

By Professor James Elander - 29 September 2017

I can’t really get started in the morning without a couple of strong filter coffees, and once I get to University I visit Blends coffee shop several times a day for my favourite Americano with soya milk. So, do I have a problem with caffeine addiction, and how would I tell if I did?

Caffeine as a drug

Caffeine is probably the most widely consumed drug in the world, and has long been recognised as a mental stimulant that increases alertness and improved mood. Those are the effects that students (and others) look for when they drink coffee at night to stay awake and get that assignment finished in time. Drinking coffee might help with that, but the potential downsides include agitation, twitching, nervousness, sleeplessness, rambling thoughts and speech, not to mention stomach disturbances and needing to pee more frequently.

Caffeine works on the brain in several ways, including by increasing the brain’s energy metabolism and affecting a number of brain chemicals including noradrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. In moderate doses it is sometimes claimed to improve cognitive performance and even to protect against cognitive decline.

Caffeine addiction and the symptoms

However, it has also long been recognised that caffeine can produce symptoms of addiction. According to the medical criteria, if you get withdrawal symptoms like headaches, difficulty concentrating and low mood, and if you think caffeine is causing problems for you, and if you have tried unsuccessfully to cut down, then you may well have ‘caffeine use disorder.’

If you are concerned about caffeine addiction, some signs to look out for are:

Only a relatively small proportion of caffeine users get addicted, but for those who do, it can be a serious problem and many of those affected have difficulty giving up, so that caffeine use disorder is sometimes described as a ‘chronic relapsing condition.’

Are energy drinks just as bad?

Coffee shops and fast food outlets often market highly sweetened coffee drinks that appeal more to young people, but drinking coffee may not actually be the most serious cause of the problem in modern times. Caffeine is also the main active ingredient of energy drinks, which can contain much more caffeine than a drink of coffee. This, coupled with the increased popularity of energy drinks among children and young people, has led many health professionals to be increasingly concerned about energy drink consumption, which has been linked with use of alcohol and other drugs as well as a range of health risk behaviours.

Some people seek professional help for their caffeine use, but effective, brief and inexpensive treatments are at a relatively early stage in development – more research is needed in this area.

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About the author

Professor James Elander
Professor of Health Psychology

James Elander is an HCPC-registered health psychologist who conducts research on chronic illnesses including haemophilia, sickle cell disease, end-stage renal disease, spinal pain, and dysmenorrhea. He also has a longstanding interest in the psychology of learning and teaching, especially student writing.

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