Caffeine and Mental Health
While I’m not a doctor or a trained nutritionist, I’ve done a fair amount of research into the effects of caffeine. With my qualified counsellor hat on I can observe the role it can play in the day-to-day status of our stress levels and overall mental wellbeing.
Caffeine can be defined as an alkaloid compound that is found especially in tea and coffee plants and is a stimulant of the central nervous system. Many of us consume caffeinated products to help us to feel more alert!
Products that contain caffeine include, but are not limited to,
Cocoa beans and chocolate
I didn’t realise how dependent I was on caffeine until I tried to cut it out. There’s a lot of science behind the reasons why caffeine affects us the way it does, but the important thing to notice is its addictive nature. Understanding your relationship with caffeine could help improve your mental health.
My relationship with caffeine used to be very different, I mindlessly drank tea and coffee and thought nothing about the effect it might have on my body or my mood.
Excessive caffeine consumption can lead to a variety of health issues including obesity, binge eating, high blood pressure, diabetes, fatigue, depression, mood swings, and a decreased sex drive.
A significant fact to bear in mind is that too much caffeine can lead to high cortisol levels. Cortisol is what I call the ‘stress hormone.’ Like all our hormones, it serves a purpose and plays a key role in our survival. One main function it has is that it helps us to respond to stressful situations, however, when we are too stressed, this hormone is responsible for the variety of negative health problems associated with stress, including but not limited to:
Weight gain, mostly around the midsection, upper back and the face
High blood pressure
Headache (Health Line, 2015)
Do any of these things sound familiar? When we experience any of these symptoms, how do we cope? When I’m tired and irritable, I drink more coffee. When I’m struggling to concentrate, I drink more coffee. When I’m feeling irritable, it’s time to give me coffee! This solves the issue during the moment, but long term it’s fuelling a variety of problems.
There is rarely a time where I do not have access to coffee. There is always either a kettle or a café nearby and the price of a cappuccino does not stop me! Like alcohol, coffee doesn’t provide us with any nutrition, if anything these substances can potentially block helpful vitamins and nutrients from being absorbed by the body, so really after the caffeine buzz is over what am I left with?
Caffeine isn’t necessarily calorific, but it can make us more hungry, more agitated, and perhaps we then crave more fattening and sugary food.
There’s a story we are sold that caffeine is supposed to speed up your metabolic rate and therefore burn fat, however, the amount your metabolism speeds up by isn’t all that significant when you compare it to the damage you are doing to your body.
According to a helpful book by Eugine Wells called The Decaff diet, caffeine can depress levels of testosterone, growth hormone, and DHEA, resulting in a ‘breakdown of muscle and bone tissue and the promotion of fat gain.’ (Wells, 2010)
From this, I have interpreted that your heart rate does speed up, but a breakdown of muscle over time could potentially reduce your metabolism, therefore reducing the number of calories you burn while resting.
You may see a positive effect on your weight as well. Caffeine can cause reduced sensitivity to leptin, which is a protein that is supposed to tell us that we have adequate fat stores. If our body knows we have eaten enough it’s less likely to lead you to the unhealthy cravings that might have caused weight gain for you previously. (Wells, 2010)
But enough about diet, what about our mental wellbeing?
Let’s start with sleep! Where some people will sleep through anything, despite how much they eat or drink before bed, I was very much in denial of how my sleep was affected by caffeine. Caffeine might not be reducing the amount of sleep you have but it may reduce your sleep quality. This is a tricky thing to accept as many of us in western society need the caffeine buzz right until we get to bed. Many of us are unable to leave our work responsibilities at the door, and even if we can, we have responsibilities at home that require energy that we just don’t have. By the time we sit down, we might be lucky and fall straight to sleep, or we might feel extremely tired but unable to switch off our racing thoughts.
While I don’t have the exact solution for your workload management, the caffeine you may have consumed will not slow down your racing brain when you’re lying in bed trying to sleep, and it won’t help to calm down your vivid and very active dreams.
If what I just said hit home for you, and you would like to give up the caffeine but can’t imagine a way of getting through your busy life without it, I invite you to firstly, just try it and see if you can. Can you survive with one less coffee? Can you stop drinking caffeine after a certain time in the day?
If you find yourself unable to do this and you slip back into your caffeinated habits, as a counsellor, I will ask you to look at what your body is telling you. If you are unable to get through the day without this stimulant, is your lifestyle serving you well? Is there too much pressure on you? Are people helping you enough? Have you taken too much on? Do you give yourself enough time to rest?
But what about withdrawal? If you haven’t given up caffeine before you might be in for a shock. Your body has been relying on this drug for so long that it initially doesn’t know how to cope without it and you could experience headaches, sickness, low mood and potentially other symptoms. Notice the word initially, your body soon adapts, and the pounding headaches and sickness disappear, and hopefully, you’re left feeling the best you’ve ever felt!
You may be lucky enough to not experience the feeling of caffeine withdrawal, but if you decide to cut caffeine out or cut down, don’t do it on a day where you have something important to do.
Once you are through the caffeine withdrawal, you will hopefully notice yourself feeling happier, less snappy, less stressed, and this is without making any other changes to your life. If a change this small can have such a big effect, then imagine what would happen if you were to cut out some of the other stressors in your life!?
What about caffeine and anxiety?
It’s recommended that people who have an anxiety disorder should watch their caffeine consumption. That is because it can worsen your symptoms such as increased heart rate, racing thoughts, feeling panicky and overwhelmed.
Speeding up our heart rate isn’t a problem by itself. For example, exercise will increase our heart rate, but when we stop exercising, our heart rate should return to normal. This helps us to regulate our heart rate, which can help us when we are feeling anxious. When we drink caffeine, however, we don’t have the same control, we increase our heart rate without having the same ability to bring it down.
This makes it hard to control the elevated heart rate levels we may experience when we are anxious. Many of us who struggle with anxiety disorders will have formed coping strategies such as breathing exercises and mindfulness techniques that help us to manage our anxiety. But if we are consuming too much caffeine then these strategies are going to be less impactful.
But what will fill the empty space? Your evening cup of tea provided more than just a caffeine buzz for you; it was a warm, cosy sensation in your stomach that takes you to your happy place. What are the substitutes? Many people will often disregard the option of fruit and herbal tea, but these teas don’t have to be dull. If you look around, you can find some interesting flavours. For those of you who have a sweet tooth, try liquorice tea! It’s sugar-free but very sweet. I found a chocolate tea once, which I preferred to English breakfast, and I recommend Redbush (Rooibos) tea, it’s a healthy and caffeine-free alternative, which you can add milk to. This then provides that comforting feeling in your stomach that might help you to feel calm while not impacting your sleep.
As for coffee substitutes, it is easier to find a healthy decaffeinated coffee than decaffeinated tea. If you didn’t already know, the process of decaffeinating tea and coffee can be brutal. There are often chemicals used in the process that aren’t that great. However, some coffee companies use a different process involving freeze-drying, carbon dioxide, water and so on.
There are also some more unusual coffee substitutes involving rye and barley grains that you can purchase from health food stores. There are a lot more substitutes out there than you might realise. Give them a try even if you only replace a couple of cups a day, it’s a start!
Once you have gradually replaced a couple of your normal cups of tea with these substitutes then you will start to enjoy the caffeine you do consume a lot more! You might realise it starts to wake you up now, rather than just helping you to feel ‘normal’. And when your body has adjusted over a couple of days of the ‘withdrawal’ you will start to crave caffeine far less, leading to you spending less cash and not having to plan your day around coffee stops.
I can only speak from personal experience when I say that observing your caffeine consumption will help you with any mental health issues you may have.
Overall, coffee in moderation is unlikely to have a terrible effect on most people, but a lot of us do drink more than we should. The recommended amount varies from person to person, but from a mental health perspective, I invite you to tune into your body and notice its effect on you.
(2015, 1 11). Retrieved from Health Line: https://www.healthline.com/health/high-cortisol-symptoms#symptoms
Wells, E. (2010). The Decaff Diet. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (21 Aug. 2010).