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Caffeine (cont.)

Medical Editor:

Is caffeine addictive?

Have you ever said that you can't function until your morning cup of coffee? Do you find yourself reaching for caffeinated coffee, tea, or soda when you are feeling lethargic? Could it be that you are addicted to caffeine? That all depends on whom you ask. Whether we consume caffeine for pleasure or purpose is a controversial topic. Those opposed to caffeine being addictive claim that we consume it for the pleasure of the product, while those who believe that it is addictive claim that we consume it for the purpose of satisfying our craving for it.

Psychiatric diagnoses are categorized by a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-IV). This manual covers all mental-health disorders for both children and adults. The DSM-IV does not classify substances as addictive but instead sets the criteria for substance dependence, including:

  1. tolerance;
  2. substance-specific withdrawal syndrome;
  3. substance often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than expected;
  4. persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use;
  5. a great deal of time spent in activities necessary to obtain, use, or recover from the effects of the substance;
  6. important social, occupational, or recreational activities given up or reduced because of the substance; and/or
  7. use continued despite knowledge of a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance.

In order for a user of a substance to be considered dependent upon it, the substance needs to meet at least three of the above criteria. It is clear that people can be dependent on caffeine based on these criteria.

Those who disagree with the idea that people can be dependent on caffeine point to the fact that studies do not show that 100% of people who consume caffeine experience symptoms of withdrawal or dependence. They also argue that people can often tell when caffeine is present by taste difference, so results of the studies are altered by that awareness. Instead of the addiction aspect they believe that the pleasurable aroma, taste, and social aspects of coffee are the reasons for consumption.

I don't know if we need to classify caffeine as addictive or something that you can be dependent on. I think that we need to be educated about the pros and cons of it in our diets and be aware of how our own body reacts to it. There is no doubt that there are withdrawal symptoms that you can experience. These symptoms include headache, tiredness/fatigue, decreased energy/activeness, decreased alertness/attentiveness, drowsiness/sleepiness, decreased contentedness/well-being, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and felling muzzy/foggy/not clearheaded. The onset of withdrawal symptoms typically begins 12-24 hours after abstinence, with the peak intensity occurring at 20-51 hours. The withdrawal symptoms last for a range of two to nine days. This is a considerable amount of time that makes it easy to understand why people would have a hard time cutting caffeine from their diet.

There is no disputing the fact that caffeine "addiction" is not as intense or dangerous as drug addictions. You may feel "addicted" or dependent on it and it can be dangerous to overdo it. You can experiment and see how you feel with and without low to moderate amounts of caffeine. Some people do not feel anything when they consume caffeine and others don't feel anything when they stop consuming it. For those who do feel the withdrawal symptoms it is best to slowly decrease your intake. Just as your body got used to the amount that you are consuming it will get used to less or none at all. All of this information is based on research done on adults. We can't say for sure that caffeine will have the same effect on children and adolescents without the proper research.


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