Coffee’s darker side: What do you expect from caffeine?

Do you think of caffeine as a drug? A highly addictive drug? If so, you are in the minority, but you’re also correct.

Why is caffeine considered addictive?

Caffeine is an addictive drug that produces several of the same withdrawal symptoms as many other drugs typically considered as dangerous and addictive (i.e. tobacco, cocaine, heroin). These include headaches, depression, cognitive problems (like memory, and concentration issues), and more.

Additionally, since coffee drinkers often experience tolerance, and some have difficulty stopping their use of the drug, caffeine can be thought of as meeting the addiction standard. Obviously, unlike at least some of those drugs, caffeine’s psychoactive effects are more subtle, which means that even for those with relatively long-term escalating use, the effects on their daily life are usually pretty subtle.

What you expect affects what you get from coffee

A recent report in the Psychology Monitor mentioned two recent, interesting, findings about coffee drinking:

In one study participants were told they would be given caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee. Then, some were actually given the decaf or caffeinated drink they were promised while others were given the opposite drink. Researchers found that participants’ expectations about whether or not they’d be drinking a caffeinated drink altered the short term effects on them. Surprisingly, those who were told that they wouldn’t be getting the drug experienced more withdrawal symptoms, possibly because their bodies were not ready for its effects. However after a few hours all indicators returned to caffeine’s expected effects instead of people’s expectations.

In another experiment with a very similar setup, people participated in a task that required use of both motor and cognitive skills. All across the board those given caffeine performed better. Although those who thought they received caffeine said they were more attentive, the results proved otherwise.

Caffeine is good in the short term, just be careful

These experiments proved that in the short term caffeine proved to be beneficial for quick pick-me-ups and help in focusing but, in the long term, people can become addicted and some participants reported that they had trouble functioning in their daily tasks without the drug.

As usual, the issue is one of diminishing returns as tolerance builds and the body responds to the drug’s effect. The increased attention and focus initially experienced give way to a reduced ability to focus without the caffeine. Like with many other addictions, this begins the cycle of using more to get the same effect, eventually leaving users with little effect and a sustained use of the drug. The trick is monitor your use, take long enough breaks when you don’t really need the stuff, and reap the benefits.

In addition to coffee, caffeine is found in many of our popular drinks including tea, soda and the increasingly popular energy drinks. However, while caffeine is thought of as being completely harmless, it can increase the negative effects of many existing heart conditions, anxiety disorders as well as lead to insomnia and stomach and digestion issues. As usual, the drug has benefits, but also some risks, so if you drink coffee often you should, at the least, be aware of those risks; not being aware could lead to trouble down the line.

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