Do you swear by your morning cup of coffee? In North America, 90% of adults consume caffeine daily. Many people feel grumpy, unsociable, or “barely human” before a dose of caffeine.
People are scrambling for an answer to the question, “is caffeine good for you?” There have been a lot of sensational headlines, and conflicting reports, in the last few years about the impacts of caffeine. There’s a lot we don’t yet understand about how caffeine affects us, but we have learned a lot too.
While a lot of stories focus on the physical health effects of caffeine, let’s take a moment to look at the mental health impacts. After all, caffeine is a psychoactive drug. Many people drink coffee for a mood boost, not just for the extra energy. Caffeine can cause ill effects on mental health as well. Caffeine is such a common part of our lives that many people are unaware of how it’s actually affecting them.
“Coffee is My Prozac” – The Benefits of Caffeine
When considering the benefits people feel after consuming caffeine, it’s important to remember that caffeine is addictive. People quickly develop tolerance to caffeine and can become mentally and physically dependent on it.
Keeping that in mind, does caffeine actually improve people’s moods and sense of wellbeing? Or does caffeine feel good simply because people have become addicted to it and experience withdrawal symptoms without it?
Research on people who do not have a pre-existing caffeine addiction show that caffeine does cause a mood boost. Caffeine causes several changes in neurotransmitters, including an increase in dopamine, that may account for the improvement in mood people experience after ingesting caffeine. It’s true that your morning cup of coffee can do more than keep you from feeling bad (by avoiding withdrawal) – it can help you feel good.
Caffeine can help increase people’s mood and sense of wellbeing in indirect ways as well. Caffeine essentially acts as a performance enhancer. While it won’t provide you with skills or abilities you don’t already have, caffeine can help you perform at your best mentally and physically. It has been shown to increase cognitive function, allowing people to have a faster and clearer flow of thought, greater focus, and enhanced memory, as well as improving overall body coordination. Shift workers have been shown to make significantly fewer mistakes after ingesting caffeine. No wonder many people feel better emotionally on caffeine. Would you be in a better mood if you’re tired and making mistakes, or if you feel like you’re “on fire”, capable and competent? The increase in confidence, self-esteem and pride when you’re performing well undoubtedly has effects on mood and overall mental health. Given how overstretched many people are (overworked and overtired), caffeine may seem especially useful or even necessary for performing well and feeling capable.
Caffeine seems to have a protective effect on long-term mental health (and brain health), too; regular coffee drinkers have up to 60% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Other benefits of caffeine relate to the context of consuming caffeine rather than the substance itself. For many people, drinking a cup of coffee or tea is part of a daily ritual and routine. Such routines can be comforting and grounding, providing a framework for the day, and have resulting mental health benefits. Likewise, drinking coffee or tea can be a social experience; often we consume caffeine with friends or work colleagues and it is part of an experience of social connection. Connection is essential for our mental health and wellbeing. If you feel a mood boost after drinking coffee or tea, it may be worth considering what rituals go with the beverages. Even if you cut down on caffeine in the future, it may be worth maintaining some of the habits that go with drinking caffeine.
Caffeine can have significant benefits, but there are also risks to associated with consuming caffeine.
Mental health effects of caffeine include:
-Irritability or anger
-Mood swings (volatility and reactivity)
-Anxiety or panic
The anxiety brought on by caffeine can be significant enough to be debilitating. Some people who have been diagnosed and treated for anxiety disorders have found that their anxiety becomes manageable without medication simply by reducing or eliminating caffeine from their diets.
There are some additional issues brought on by using caffeine to mask our sleepiness or “slumps” in energy. Caffeine works well for continuing to perform even when we’re tired, at least in the short term. However, ignoring our bodies’ signals that we need rest can be problematic. It can be tempting to avoid taking a break, instead using caffeine as a means to push ourselves further. That may be useful if you’re trying to finish off a project by tomorrow, but many people use caffeine to keep going at a breakneck pace for weeks, months, or even years. Outside of the issues caused by mental and physical exhaustion, having no time for rest or reflection is bound to lead to emotional volatility, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, and is bound to lead to burnout. Tuning into your natural energy flow – signals about when to work and when to rest – may sound like a recipe for disaster if you’re under a lot of pressure from demands at work and at home. However, allowing yourself to rest will help you be more efficient and energised when you jump back into the fold – and will allow you to maintain your mental health in the long-term.
Relatedly, we all know that caffeine can lead to sleep difficulties, but sometimes having a cup of coffee now may seem more important than whether it keeps us awake later. So many adults Australia, the UK and the US are under-slept that we sometimes lose sight of how essential sleep is for our mental health and wellbeing. Sleep becomes de-prioritised. Insufficient sleep can lead to emotional volatility and reactiveness, negativity, and can exacerbate anxiety, mood disorders, and other mental (and physical) health issues. If you’re in a cycle of sleeping badly, drinking coffee to stay awake, and having more interrupted sleep, you could be getting the double-whammy of mental health ill effects of caffeine and of insufficient sleep. Unfortunately, many people live in this cycle and it may seem like the “norm” – you may not realise how much your mood and mental health are suffering as a result.
Of course, another potential downside of caffeine is the withdrawal symptoms. If you’re used to regular caffeine, going without can lead to irritability, headaches, and tiredness too.
Should I Drink Caffeine (and How Much is Too Much)?
Caffeine clearly has some benefits and some risks. The choices of whether to consume caffeine, and how much, is a personal one. However, there are some guidelines that can help you figure out how to get some of the benefits of caffeine and avoid some of the mental health pitfalls.
Research has shown that the ideal amount of caffeine for people to maximise the benefits and minimise the risks for mood, cognitive function, and performance is 38 to 400 mg per day (1-8 cups of tea, or 0.3 to 4 cups of brewed coffee).
That’s a fairly large range. Some people can consume significant amounts of caffeine before feeling ill effects, and may seem to only experience beneficial mood changes from caffeine. Others are very sensitive to caffeine; particularly for people who are prone to anxiety, even small amounts of caffeine can cause negative side effects.
So how do you figure out how much caffeine is ideal for your mental health? The range above can act as a guide, but ultimately learning what’s best for you takes some experimentation. Notice when you consume caffeine and the impact it has on your mood. Try slowing down and noticing any sensations in your body or emotions that arise a few minutes or an hour after drinking caffeine. Pay attention to what else is happening at the time (does drinking coffee provide a chance to connect with other people? Does it affect your self-worth to be able to “push through” tiredness and keep working?). Also notice whether you need caffeine to get through the day, and consider whether your current workload and pace is sustainable (will continuing to work at this pace harm your mental health in the long run?).
If you’re experiencing some of the side effects of caffeine listed above, it may be worth cutting back on caffeine (and waiting out the “withdrawal” phase) to see if your symptoms improve. Likewise, if caffeine itself – or the rituals around caffeine – are beneficial to your mood, it may be worth integrating those into your self-care routines. Many of the positive rituals that go with caffeine consumption can work just as well with herbal tea or other non-caffeinated beverages. It’s also worth noting that the “right” amount of caffeine for you may also be different on different days, depending on the amount of sleep you’ve had, what you’ve eaten, how hydrated you are, and a number of other factors.
Do you thrive on caffeine? Avoid it at all costs? Let us know in the comments below what effect caffeine has on your mental health!