Do you have a hard time functioning in the morning without a latte or your morning cup of coffee? You’re not alone. According to the FDA, about 80% of adults in the United States drink coffee each day. About 38% of us say we “need” our coffee to get through the workday, but is it just a turn of phrase?
Coffee contains caffeine. Experts believe that people who drink a lot of caffeine in the form of coffee, cola, energy drinks, or tea, can experience a dependence. If you know anyone who has tried to quit coffee “cold turkey,” you probably know that when someone stops drinking caffeine, he or she is usually grumpy, experiencing headaches and lethargy for a few days.
While unpleasant, these symptoms pale beside addictions to illegal substances such as cocaine. Someone with an addiction to cocaine may spend years in recovery and usually needs professional help to get better. The withdrawal symptoms can be severe and even debilitating.
This difference is one reason why doctors don’t treat caffeine addictions too seriously. Some doctors even question whether caffeine addiction can be classed in the same category as more serious addictions, in part because it does not cause the social and health problems that serious drugs such as cocaine can cause.
Why is Coffee So Addictive?
Knowing that a coffee dependence is not as serious as a drug addiction can be comforting, but what happens if you can’t go a whole day without reaching for your favorite coffee mug?
The first step is to understand why coffee can become addictive. While most of us think of caffeine as a stimulant, it’s more accurate to say that it works in our body to let stimulants run free. It affects the chemistry of our brain, especially when we drink it often.
When you eat something with caffeine (such as chocolate) or drink coffee, caffeine gets dissolved into your bloodstream. From there, it enters the brain after bursting through the blood-brain barrier. This is not as scary as it sounds — all chemicals that can be dissolved in water and fat-based solutions can take the same path in your body.
Since caffeine is very similar to adenosine, a molecule in our brains, caffeine can function similarly in the brain, blocking off adenosine receptors in the brain cells. This is how caffeine gives us a jolt. Without caffeine blocking things, adenosine in our brains fits into adenosine receptors and sends signals of “you’re tired” to our bodies. With caffeine already in the receptors, the adenosine cannot do its job, and you feel more alert for a few hours.
What happens to the adenosine that’s floating around because the receptors are blocked? Often, it sets off production of adrenaline via the adrenal glands. Since adrenaline is also a stimulant, it can produce a jolt of energy, too. On top of that, with adenosine receptors blocked off, dopamine and other stimulants naturally produced in the body work a little better so you feel a bit of a “boost” with coffee or other forms of caffeine.
So the caffeine in your coffee cup works in two ways:
1) It cuts off the brain and body’s systems for sending the “I’m tired” signal.
2) It encourages stimulants naturally in your body to be released.
Depending on your body, size, age, and health, the caffeine blocks off adenosine receptors for a few hours (four to six hours, usually). As the caffeine gets absorbed and metabolized, the effects wear off.
Why Do People Get Addicted to Coffee?
Here’s where caffeine gets addictive: If you keep drinking coffee over time, your body and brain changes. Since the adenosine receptors get blocked regularly, the body creates more adenosine receptors to cope with the change. The extra receptors mean you may need more caffeine and stronger coffee after a while to get the same “fix.”
If you suddenly cut off the caffeine supply, the body has these extra receptors, and none of them are being blocked off. You get tired and irritable because those “I’m tired” signals suddenly go into overdrive. The extra receptors, the lower boost of natural stimulants, and the fact that there are no blocked receptors also cause other problems, even though scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how these problems work in the body.
According to scientists, the blocking of adenosine receptors is not the only problem. Some studies have found that caffeine increases levels of dopamine in our brains slightly, creating a very mild version of the euphoria some people experience with harder drugs such as cocaine.
Caffeine also affects other chemicals in our brain that make us feel happy and hungry. Quite simply, caffeine provides a happiness boost, much like other hard drugs. When we’re cut off, we don’t feel as happy. Since our brains and bodies are expecting that boost, our moods drop, and we get decidedly unpleasant. At that point, we want more caffeine to experience that jolt again.
Our bodies — especially our liver and brain — get better at processing caffeine the more and longer we drink it. As our metabolism of caffeine gets more efficient, we rely on it more, and we need more of it to feel the same boost. Pretty soon, we feel addicted in the sense that we experience symptoms when we stop. We realize we need more and more coffee (or stronger coffee) to get the same feelings we got from a mild brew years ago.
For many people, coffee and caffeine has a practical function — it can help keep us awake when we’re tired. Adults drink it when they need to get up early to go to work, and college students drink energy drinks when they need to stay up all night to study. Initially, someone might consume too much caffeine for one reason — such as staying up all night to finish a college paper — but then continue drinking caffeine because they feel they need it to stay awake.
There’s also a social factor with coffee addiction. Most of us rely on coffee or some form of caffeine when we head out. We associate the drink with dating, meeting friends, and relaxation. Quitting coffee can be a challenge in part because we suddenly can’t head out for a coffee. And coffee is everywhere, reminding us of a drink we enjoy but can’t have for whatever reason. The strong emotional attachment to caffeine — when combined with a physical reliance on it and the fact that we miss its taste and smell — all conspire to make us feel even grumpier about giving up coffee.
What About Cocaine and Other Drugs?
Cocaine and other illegal drugs are illegal for a reason. Although on the surface cocaine has a similar effect on our body as coffee because cocaine also boosts the levels of dopamine in our brains, the degree is dangerously different.
Dopamine is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter in our body that gets released as part of a rewards system to make our bodies feel good. Dopamine is released, for example, after a good workout — which is how we get “runner’s high” — or when we smell great food. After a short time, dopamine is re-absorbed by the neurons that released it.
Cocaine not only releases a big burst of dopamine, but it also prevents dopamine from being reabsorbed easily, creating a euphoric high. While caffeine gives us a small boost, cocaine increases levels of dopamine to the point that users feel euphoric and sometimes invincible. The effect lasts for 15 minutes to about half an hour, in many cases. Over time, however, users need more of the drug to get the same euphoric feeling.
Cocaine is mind-altering in addition to giving users a boost. It can lead users to make bad decisions because they feel too overconfident and find their decision-making skills affected. Over time, cocaine users may find their entire rewards system changed due to the drug use.
Cocaine also increases the heartbeat significantly. If you drink a lot of coffee, the adrenaline pumping in your system can cause heart palpitations or sweaty palms. With cocaine, that effect is far more severe. In fact, cocaine can elevate heart levels and raise blood pressure so much that even teenage users become candidates for heart attacks and strokes.
Why is It Easier to Break a Coffee Addiction Than Drug or Alcohol Addictions?
The good news is that breaking an addiction to coffee is relatively simple. Although caffeine changes your brain by boosting the number of adenosine receptors on each cell, if you can go about a week or 12 days without caffeine, the brain will eventually adapt and reduce the number of adenosine receptors. The symptoms you first experience when you go cold turkey will eventually fade and then disappear.
When you get addicted to caffeine and then try to quit, you might see some mild symptoms, including:
Anxiety or jitteriness
A feeling of mild depression or sadness
The withdrawal symptoms will usually only last a day or a few days. The exact time it will take depends on how much coffee you usually consume.
While the headache and tiredness you feel by skipping your coffee for a few days are not fun, they are mild enough that you can usually give up caffeine with just a little self-discipline. The withdrawal from cocaine can be far more difficult.
Those who are trying to stop cocaine use may experience symptoms such as:
On the surface, these might look very similar to the symptoms for coffee withdrawal, but the symptoms with cocaine are far more serious and can last much longer. Some people still find themselves craving the euphoria they feel with cocaine years after they have sought treatment.
Since the symptoms of cocaine withdrawal do not include any physical symptoms, some users trick themselves into thinking they were never really addicted — even though they were. It becomes easier to slip back into addiction, which is one reason why giving up cocaine is significantly more difficult than giving up caffeine.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, there is a risk for suicide and overdose involved in quitting cocaine — a risk that obviously does not exist with stopping your morning coffee. The U.S. National Library of Medicine also reports that about half of cocaine users also have a mental health issue that can affect their addiction. This issue must be faced and treated to help the person recover.
Another reason why caffeine is easier to give up than cocaine is its lack of strength — it’s harder to fall too far into addiction with your coffee. Yes, you might have a Pavlovian response when you walk by a coffee shop, but caffeine keeps you from ingesting too much because of the effect it has on your body.
When you have too much coffee, you probably don’t feel very good. You might experience shakiness, jitteriness, sweaty palms, and more, encouraging you to cut back on coffee a little. Some people even experience sleep disturbances or diarrhea, which is usually enough to make someone rethink their relationship with coffee. With cocaine and other drugs, there is no such built-in discouragement — users always want more and more of the drug.
In fact, one of the problems with cocaine is that users report they want more of the drug almost immediately. Cocaine produces feelings of happiness and confidence followed by a sharp “crash” and feelings of depression. A person who takes the drug and experiences this crash after only 20 minutes might want more cocaine to start experiencing the pleasant feelings right away.
Someone who tries an energy drink or coffee, on the other hand, may feel more alert but will not suddenly feel more powerful or overjoyed. The “jolt” is much milder and so there is no immediate addiction.
Do You Need to Worry?
An addiction to cocaine or another illegal substance requires immediate intervention. Not only are illegal drugs immediately dangerous and can cause heart attacks or other medical emergencies, but addiction to these drugs can also result in loss of jobs, financial distress, loss of relationships, and a slow downward spiral.
Coffee, on the other hand, usually does not require an intervention. Even if you feel you “need” your cup of mud in the mornings, having coffee does not harm your body if you’re a healthy adult.
It does not mean that coffee is without dangers. Abusing coffee to the point where you do not sleep can be dangerous. It can cause you to be fatigued, potentially putting your health in danger. Too much caffeine can also harm your blood pressure and even heart. There have been cases of young athletes collapsing and even suffering life-threatening injuries after overconsuming energy drinks.
If you develop high blood pressure or suddenly find yourself pregnant, you’ll need to stop or curb your intake of caffeine. There are many cases in which coffee starts to feel like less of a pleasure and more of a problem. If you find yourself too reliant on it, you might want to cut back or stop, for example. If you develop certain heart conditions or have sleep disorders, your doctor may encourage you to cut back on coffee or stop your intake of caffeine entirely.
In those cases, it might be comforting to know that no matter how grumpy you get when you miss your first cup, the symptoms will probably go away on their own after a week or so. Learn more about addiction and how to overcome it by signing up for the Clarity Way newsletter.