The American Psychiatric Association recently classified caffeine withdrawal as a mental disorder.
If you’re scratching your head over this one, you must not be a coffee drinker.
Withdrawal symptoms kick in on the very first morning without coffee.
You’re draggy, achy, and irritable. Your brain feels swampy, but soon the underwater feeling is replaced by a throbbing headache. Nausea and fatigue will have you wondering if maybe you have the flu; but no, it’s your brain and adrenal glands going haywire without their caffeine fix. If you can tough it out with herbal tea for a week or two your body will rediscover its natural, caffeine-less equilibrium. But along the way there will be some seriously rocky days.
A true coffee addict’s brain is physically and chemically different.
When a casual drinker has a cup of coffee, the caffeine crosses the blood–brain barrier and physically enters the brain. It’s not a direct stimulant but instead it blocks the receptors for adenosine, a sleep-producing substance. The brain is alert and energized because it didn’t receive its dose of adenosine, and all the free-floating sleepy adenosine will cue the brain to produce even more of its own natural stimulants like adrenaline and dopamine. The block stays in place for the four to six hours it takes for the body to metabolize the caffeine.
The physical characteristics of the caffeine addict’s brain is altered by the constant tinkering with its chemistry. Over time the brain will try to balance out the routine bouts of over-stimulation by growing more adenosine receptors, and it will shed some of its stimulant receptors. Caffeine addicts constantly need to increase their coffee consumption to feel the buzz. This also means that when their brains are deprived of caffeine, they crash harder than the rest of us.
Nobody would confuse the true caffeine addict’s withdrawal with the morning fog the rest of us experience when we go without coffee.
The headache pain and general misery are extreme enough to be medically categorized as ‘clinically significant distress,’ and brain functions are impaired to the point that work, home life, and socializing are seriously compromised.
About 30% of coffee drinkers are probably addicts, although most don’t know it until they try to go without.
The addiction rate for caffeine is a little higher than it is for heroin users but less than for nicotine.
The good news is that compared to those other substances, withdrawal is relatively quick. If the coffee junkie can get through a week or two without caffeine, the receptors in the brain will reset to their normal levels and the spell of addiction is broken.