Caffeine & Mental Health: Hidden in Plain Sight

We continue Mental Health Awareness Week 2015 with a spotlight on caffeine.  

Not enough attention is given to how caffeine can have an impact on mental health.  The world’s most widely used drug, it carries some short term benefits such as increased concentration, wakefulness and improved memory retention.

It works by mimicking a neurotransmitter in the brain called adenosine, which is responsible for the natural feelings of drowsiness that you should be getting at night, or when you’ve been awake for a while.  Caffeine attaches itself to adenosine receptors in the brain.  However, caffeine has the opposite effect to adenosine – it’s stimulating.

The problems start quickly when those adenosine receptors start multiplying in an attempt to catch up with your increasing caffeine intake – resulting in a vicious cycle where you need more and more caffeine.  Let’s say you have a cup of coffee – its effects peak around 30 minutes after you drink it, and it takes about 6 hours for only half of it to be out of your system.  By then you’ve probably needed and had more, and so it continues.

So what’s the problem exactly?  

People experiencing mental health issues – and indeed people generally should keep an eye on how much they’re consuming and how often.

Side effects of caffeine (a drug, after all) include a high heartrate, high blood pressure, feelings of nervousness, insomnia, trembling, an upset digestive system, dizziness and many more.  It can also increase anxiety and the frequency of panic attacks.  If you’re already experiencing mental (or physical!) health problems, inviting all of these additional symptoms seems like a bad idea, doesn’t it?

Well, it’s easy to not really notice how much caffeine you’re having – it’s in coffee, tea, energy drinks, most soft drinks – and even some drinks you’d think of as “healthier” like green tea, where it’s often actually found in higher quantities.

It’s also easy not to notice how much of a habit you have.  Because it’s such a big part of every-day life, the fact that everyone seems to use it – along with the demands of work, studies or whatever it is that’s keeping you busy and needing to stay awake, it’s not difficult to lose track.

Caffeine is, thinking about it, hidden in plain sight and causing a lot of small problems that can really add up.  So what if you want to limit or stop your intake?

The good news is that although you can have a dependence on caffeine, it’s a fairly easy one to break compared to drugs like nicotine.  Cold-turkey stopping your caffeine intake would most likely give you a headache and make you irritable for a couple of days, but after that the caffeine would be clear from your system and your brain would revert to its natural state of functioning and being awake without needing caffeine.  Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to start benefiting from the lack of dependence and all of the side effects.

If you have a high intake of caffeine, or any other health problems however – it’s a good idea to ask your Doctor how to proceed, as you may need to taper down more slowly.  You should always seek a medical opinion if you are unsure about something like this.

So let’s all have a think about how much caffeine we’re drinking, and remember – there are always decaf options available!


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