Caffeine’s Effects on Mental Health

Caffeine’s Effects on Mental Health

Since 1949, the month of May has been designated “Mental Health Awareness Month”. Fortunately, the amount of attention that mental health is receiving has increased dramatically since then. The serious increase in drug abuse along with the focus on mental health issues among the homeless receives a lot of attention in the media. However, what about those of us dealing with more common everyday mental health challenges like anxiety, stress and mild depression? 

Ever since the pandemic, people’s experience of anxiety has been on a steep rise – an estimated 25% increase! I like to follow the thread called  “r/decaf” on the online forum Reddit. People report such a wide range of experiences with caffeine as well as what they go through while trying to quit coffee. No wonder caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the world. Despite being highly motivated by mental health issues like anxiety and depression, people can have such a difficult time giving up the habit of drinking coffee.

Anxiety is one of the most common causes people cite as to why they’re getting off of coffee along with the need for stress reduction. However, depression is more nuanced with some people reporting caffeine intake helps their depression while others find their mood is better by maintaining stable energy and avoiding caffeine stimulation.

4 reasons why anxiety is provoked by caffeine

In an analysis of 8 well-screened studies that included a total of 564 participants evaluated for caffeine’s influence on anxiety, the conclusion was that caffeine is definitely associated with an increased risk of anxiety in healthy people. The researchers found the following four associations:

  1. High intake of caffeine defined as >400mg/day is associated with anxiety occurrence. Research also showed that even at lower doses, anxiety provocation is a reality for many coffee drinkers who are otherwise healthy.
  2. Genetics seems to play a role in the central nervous system’s response to caffeine. However, no studies have been performed yet to determine which genes in the central nervous system are involved.
  3. Increased heart rate, sweating, nervousness and more rapid breathing brought on by caffeine consumption makes some people think they are having a panic attack. Of course this increases their anxiety.
  4. Caffeine stimulates the fight of flight response which elevates cortisol production. Cortisol is a stress hormone and feelings of increased stress can cause greater anxiety.

More information:

Caffeine and its effects on mild depression

The impact of caffeine on mild depression is less clear. Age seems to play a role in whether caffeine increases or decreases depression. Younger people are more susceptible to experiencing caffeine increasing depression. Additionally, the intake of nicotine from smoking and sugar from sweeteners, both of which often accompanies coffee drinking, complicates the analysis of whether or not coffee increases or decreases depression. 

In social media forums, people commonly debate whether coffee has an effect on their depression. Some people find a morning cup of coffee gives them a needed lift to overcome depression while others find that the mood disturbance that accompanies caffeine’s jolt and subsequent crash aggravates their depression.

One thing is clear though; if coffee is interfering with sleep, depression is negatively affected. A good night’s sleep that includes deep sleep cycles is crucial to the brain to rest and recover. Fatigue aggravates depression. If coffee drinking is impairing the quality of sleep, a person may experience more depression.

Take a 3 month caffeine sabbatical

I’ve said it before and here comes the same conclusion again. There is only one really good way to determine if caffeine consumption is contributing to any health issues you may be experiencing. Take a three month sabbatical from caffeine!  

The foremost researcher on caffeine, Roland Griffith of Johns Hopkins University, recommended doing just that to the best selling author, Michael Pollan, who wrote about his experience going caffeine free in his book, This is Your Mind on Plants. Michael describes in detail what he went through weaning himself off of coffee. Although he went back to drinking coffee after the 3 months were up, he recommends doing a sabbatical to discover the effects of caffeine on your body. His big discovery was that his quality of sleep was much better without any caffeine and that caused him to modulate his caffeine intake afterwards.

Your body is your best laboratory to test the effects of any food or drug on your mental health and it will tell you exactly what you need to know if you are willing to experiment. No matter what the studies say, your best information will come from your personal experience as you try different lifestyle modifications on your journey towards optimal health!

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