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Caffeine: Habit or Hooked?

Do you have an innocent coffee habit—or an addiction?

Illustration Credit: Americano Gothic by Karen Elad

Laura M. Juliano, an associate professor of psychology at American University, recently published a review in the Journal of Caffeine Research establishing the criteria for caffeine use disorder. According to the research, your appreciation for a good cup of java, soda, or any other caffeine-laden foods may be a potentially harmful addiction.

In defining the diagnosis criteria, Juliano hopes to make it possible for people to recognize caffeine addiction as a real condition that warrants treatment. The American Psychiatric Association listed caffeine use disorder as a health issue needing more research in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, and the World Health Organization already recognizes the disorder.

Caffeine may be more socially acceptable than other substances because it’s so easy to access, says Andy Bellatti, a nutritionist based in Las Vegas. Being an addict may not be as frowned upon when your drug of choice is topped with foam or promises to carry you through that 3 p.m. crash.

“Now it is possible to get a caffeine fix when you’re in a bookstore, or even if you’re driving, with Starbucks drive-throughs,” he says, adding that energy drinks are just as much of a culprit as coffee.

How do you know if you’re hooked? It’s not so much about quantity (although Juliano recommends sticking to under 400 milligrams a day); it’s about how much the drug seems to control your life. Watch out for these signs of addiction: If you try to cut down, you suffer withdrawal symptoms such as headache, trouble concentrating, or flulike symptoms. You continue to consume caffeine even if it exacerbates health conditions such as anxiety or hypertension. You try to quit or cut down, but you can’t.

To be diagnosed, you must experience all three of those symptoms—and perhaps some of these other trouble signs:

  • You need to consume more and more caffeine to feel its effects.
  • You interrupt regular activities to satisfy your craving.
  • You spend a significant amount of time seeking out caffeine, consuming it, or recovering from its effects.
  • You regularly consume more caffeine than you intended to.
  • You continue using caffeine even if it causes interpersonal problems or conflicts.

Wean Yourself Off and Wind Down

Even if you’re a diagnosable caffeine addict, it is possible to break the habit.

To reduce your caffeine intake, you can either quit cold turkey or cut down over a two- to four-week period, Bellatti says. “Caffeine withdrawals can be quite unpleasant, so cold turkey can be very difficult for many individuals,” he notes.

Try these tips to cut back:

  • Know your numbers. Be aware of how many milligrams of caffeine you’re consuming daily—taking into account sodas, iced tea, and other noncoffee drinks.
  • Expect fatigue and headache. These common symptoms typically last for a couple of days to a week if you quit abruptly. If you take a headache medication, choose one without caffeine.
  • Lower your intake gradually. Steadily cutting back can decrease the discomfort, although it may not entirely prevent caffeine withdrawal, Juliano says. “It is important for people to remind themselves that caffeine withdrawal is temporary and that they may feel better in general once they get off caffeine,” she adds.
  • Try to get down to less than 50 mg a day—equivalent to a single cup of black tea. Juliano says that as little as 100 mg of caffeine per day can maintain dependence.
  • Consider decaf or half-caf. Java lovers can try half-caf blends or decaf when cutting down—just remember that even decaf contains some caffeine.
  • Rest and distract yourself. Meditating or picking up a new hobby can take the edge off the drinking habit if you are a coffee nut.
  • Redirect. Juliano recommends practicing some of the same coping skills that recovering smokers use, such as taking a walk when you feel like drinking another cup.

Originally published as "Buzz Off" in the Sept/Oct 2014 issue of Spirituality & Health magazine.