Caffeine and anxiety: Can coffee cause anxiety, or make it worse?
What you need to know about caffeine, anxiety and your favorite pick-me-up beverages.
Oddly enough, you won’t hear anti-drugs politicians talk very often about the most popular drug in the world. Strange, when you consider that some 2 billion people use it regularly.
The drug is of course caffeine. In fact, it’s a safe bet that those same politicians are currently using it even at the moment they denounce filthy drug addicts.
Caffeine happens to come in legal, liquid form, with some 96 percent of caffeine being delivered to sluggish and sleepy bloodstreams around the world via coffee, tea or soda.
But that doesn’t make it any less of a drug. And like any other drug, it’s possible to experience adverse effects if you ingest too much caffeine or get too dependent on it.
Some of those negative effects include headaches, irritability, insomnia – and the focus of our attention today, anxiety.
We all know that it’s possible to drink a bit too much coffee, and lose a little sleep or feel a bit on edge.
But is it possible, as some people say, that caffeine actually causes anxiety? What do we know about the links between caffeine and anxiety, and is there anything we can do about it?
What does caffeine do to your system?
In order to fully explore whether or not caffeine-induced anxiety is really a thing we should first take the time to understand what’s going on in your body when you drink a cup of coffee or pound an energy drink.
The chemical reactions taking place in your brain and body when you drink a caffeine-laced beverage have been widely documented.
Caffeine works via two major avenues:
First, it blocks the production of a brain chemical called adenosine that makes you feel fatigued. Normally, adenosine levels in your body accumulate over the course of the day, making you feel increasingly tired over time and causing you to want to go to sleep.
When you drink coffee or another caffeine-laden beverage, however, the caffeine connects with your adenosine receptors, preventing them from producing the chemical that makes you feel tired, and thereby increasing your alertness.
Secondly, caffeine is also thought to increase brain activity and activate the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine.
This pair of neurotransmitters is important to the function of caffeine, as norepinephrine increases your heart rate and may constrict blood vessels, causing higher blood pressure.
Meanwhile, dopamine is known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, strongly associated with sensations of pleasure and reward.
Finally – and this is where the caffeine and anxiety puzzle really starts to come into focus – caffeine boosts the body’s production of adrenaline.
Adrenaline and caffeine anxiety
We’ve all heard of “100 percent pure adrenaline,” of course, so most people have a vague idea that it has something to do with energy and excitement. But it’s worth a small side-trip to examine what role adrenaline really plays in the whole caffeine-induced anxiety drama.
Adrenaline is a hormone that your body’s adrenal glands produce and which causes the triggering of the “fight or flight” response in your nervous system.
This in turn causes a lot of temporary changes in your body, which ultimately lead to the release of more blood glucose and more energy production in the body’s cells, giving you that famous boost of energy.
It also causes increased heart rate, contraction in your blood vessels, and dilated airways.
Those three effects, along with the increased overall sense of energy we feel when we ingest caffeine are a big reason why more and more health professionals with a sports background don’t discourage pre-workout caffeine.
Some experts even go so far as to recommend a dose of coffee or an energy drink before a training session (in otherwise healthy individuals).
But what about anxiety and caffeine?
However, we have to remember that increased heart rate, constricted blood vessels and dilated airways are also symptoms of anxiety.
Indeed, take a look at this list of some of the clinical symptoms of anxiety:
Rapid heart rate
Restlessness (being fidgety, constantly moving)
Any coffee-lovers out there able to claim they’ve never experiencedany of these symptoms before when they’ve knocked back a cup or two more than usual?
So, yeah, when it comes to caffeine and anxiety, just even in the simplest terms of what they look like, there’s some overlap.
Anxiety is not uncommon. We all experience a bit of nervousness, a fluttering heart, or unwarranted tension from time to time.
Especially in this day and age, it’s perfectly normal to worry about the future sometimes, or feel uncomfortable and tense in certain situations.
But when clinicians talk about people suffering from anxiety, they’re usually talking about more intense bouts of deep, persistent, and intense stress, nervousness, and even panic about relatively routine situations.
Caffeine and anxiety: Does coffee cause anxiety?
So, what’s the deal, then? Is it that the caffeine causes people to experience anxiety? Or that the symptoms of anxiety are merely mimicking the symptoms of caffeine intake?
All the available evidence points to caffeine being a substance that can exacerbate feelings of anxiety, or even trigger a bout of intense anxiety, but as far as actually being the cause, that just doesn’t seem to be the case.
Just as some people are fine with going to bed an hour after drinking an espresso, while others can’t touch the stuff after 2 pm or risk staring at the ceiling all night, we all have our individual limits on how much caffeine we can comfortably ingest without feeling over-stressed or anxious.
Having said that, there are some tools you can use to help yourself learn just where you fit on that spectrum, and figure out what decisions you need to make around your personal caffeine intake.
Taking charge of caffeine
Understand and track your intake
Do you know how much caffeine you take in on a normal day? Do you understand the wild variation in caffeine levels of different beverages?
Your first step to controlling any potential caffeine-related anxiety issues is to anticipate what happens to you personally when you overdo it, and exactly what overdoing it means, for you. (That’s just Smart Drug-Taking 101, kids.)
For reference, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is the recommended upper limit for most adults. That’s about 4 cups of regular coffee.
Here’s a quick sketch of what some caffeinated beverages contain:
8 ounces of plain black coffee contains 102–200 mg
8 ounces of espresso contains 240–720 mg
8 ounces of black tea contains 25–110 mg
8 ounces of green tea contains 30–50 mg
8 ounces of yerba mate contains 65–130 mg
12 ounces of soda contains 37–55 mg
12 ounces of energy drinks contain 107–120 mg
Examine other daily habits
While caffeine as we’ve seen can be a factor in exacerbating anxiety, the condition has a wide array of triggers.
Before blaming your poor old cuppa joe for your stress, take a look at factors like your sleep habits, your diet, and your exercise regimen. That’s not even to mention emotional triggers like work issues, personal life, finances, etc. etc.
Neglecting any one of these and letting them fester can mess with your anxiety levels.
Monitor your diet when drinking caffeine beverages
Some nutritionists believe that eating protein when ingesting caffeine can cut the potential for bad side effects like anxiety.
Another factor is consuming caffeine on an empty stomach – like any drug, caffeine’s effects are magnified that way. Also, check with your doctor or pharmacist regarding any medications you’re on that might interact with caffeine, a not-uncommon occurrence.
One note: if you do decide to cut down on your caffeine intake, be aware that, as with any drug, weaning off of caffeine has side effects.
While caffeine withdrawal isn’t considered dangerous like opioid withdrawal, it can be unpleasant. Some relief can be found in cutting back slowly, and also by staying hydrated, getting plenty of exercise, and getting enough sleep.
Anxiety and caffeine: Chicken and the egg?
So the bottom line is that, no, caffeine alone is not likely to be the sole cause of one’s anxiety.
But some things do bear repeating:
It’s almost hard to believe just how many people use caffeine on a daily basis, 2.3 billion by some estimates. For instance, in the U.S., studies show that some 85 percent of the population uses caffeine at least once a day.
At the same time, keep in mind that some 31 percent of Americans will at some point in their lives suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. Those numbers provide an awful lot of room for overlap.
But with a little common sense and self-awareness, it is possible to at least minimize the chances that your love of caffeine is going to trigger an anxiety event.
This article contains general nutritional tips and advice. However, no diet or exercise program should be started without consulting your physician or other industry professional first. For more information read our full disclaimer here.