Is coffee addictive?

Is caffeine addictive?

Pawel Malczewski
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Short summary

Caffeine consumption doesn’t fit the definition of addiction but rather of a mild physical dependency. Caffeine intake is actually related to a physical dependency, which is one criteria of a drug addiction. However, other characteristics of a drug addiction are not met. Caffeine is not considered an addictive drug by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. For a quick answer click here.

Explanation

Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world with psychoactive properties. It stimulates the central nervous system at the cerebral cortex and medulla and with higher doses it stimulates the spinal cord. Caffeine also stimulates the cardiac muscles and acts as a muscle relaxant.

Caffeine is commonly associated with addiction since many caffeine users report that:

  • It is hard to quit or reduce caffeine use despite knowingly experiencing undesirable symptoms or medical and psychological problems.
  • They continue using caffeine to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

These reasons, however, indicate physical dependency rather than drug addiction.

Being dependent on a drug doesn’t mean that you are addicted. (1)NIH. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Addiction vs dependence. Available here.

Physical caffeine dependence

Our body adapts to regular exposure to caffeine, to the point that when the exposure is removed we get affected by a number of symptoms, called withdrawal symptoms. These negative manifestations last till the body re-adjusts. Physical dependence is the craving for those drugs which relieve the withdrawal symptoms. (read more..)

Why “caffeine dependence” and not “caffeine addiction”?

Due to the destructive properties that drugs produce on the brain, drug addiction is described as a chronic, deteriorating brain disease.

The following are the characteristics of drug addiction (2)The National Alliance of Advvocates for Physical Dependence and Addiction. Available here. (3)The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics. NIH. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Available here. (4)American society of addiction medicine. Definition of Addiction Available here.

  • It is a deteriorating brain disease;
  • The cravings are derived from the altered brain biology caused by taking drugs;
  • To eliminate the cravings, it is necessary to reverse the changes in the brain;
  • It is difficult to control drug use – not able to consistently abstain from the drug;
  • Impairment of behavioral control;
  • Compulsive behavior caused by unnatural cravings;
  • Continuous use of the drug despite the knowledge that they are harmful;
  • Craving for the drugs’ rewarding experiences;
  • Difficulty in recognizing significant problems;
  • Abnormal emotional responses, usually associated with addictive behaviors;
  • Destructive behavior caused by uncontrollable cravings, often leading to self-harm and self-destruction.

The withdrawal symptoms of other drugs are more severe than from caffeine and depend on a few factors such as the level of dependency, type of substance and length of time the substance was taken (5)American Addiction Centers. What Are Some Drug Withdrawal Symptoms? Available here.:

  • Heroin and prescription painkillers: flu-like symptoms (1-2 days)
  • Cocaine: depression and restlessness (7-10 days)
  • Alcoholism: tremors and/or seizures (3 days – several weeks)
  • Caffeine consumption is not recognized as an addiction by “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)” and is not considered as a drug by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. (6)NIH. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugs of Abuse. Available here.

Caffeine has certain characteristics of drug dependence, and has some effects on the dopamine action in the brain. However, this set of characteristics is not sufficient to call it an addiction.

The difference between the action of caffeine and other drugs known to be addictive, such as opioids, is that caffeine causes the release of dopamine (the brain’s neurotransmitter) in the prefrontal cortex part of the brain associated with reinforcing effects. By contrast, opioids release dopamine in the main area responsible for reward, motivation and addiction called nucleus accumbens. (7)Nehlig A. Are we dependent upon coffee and caffeine? A review on human and animal data. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1999 Mar;23(4):563-76. Available here.

In addictive drug use, the pleasure is derived when the drug overstimulates this part of the brain producing a euphoric effect and making the drug addicts seek this effect continuously. Once an individual is addicted, certain changes occur in the brain, altering their judgement, decision making and behavior which leads to compulsive and destructive behavior.

This doesn’t happen with caffeine.

Note: One criteria of addiction is physical dependence to the substance, but experiencing physical dependence alone does not mean that someone is addicted. (8)The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics. NIH. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Available here.

Difference in the brain areas affected by addiction and dependency
In the morphine dependency, the thalamus and brainstem are affected while in the case of addiction, the reward pathway is affected. (9)NIH. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Addiction vs dependence. Available here.

Conclusion

Back to top

Caffeine is not addictive. Through increased tolerance and caffeine daily doses, a tolerance to caffeine is developed, leading to mild caffeine dependence where the user chooses to avoid experiencing the withdrawal symptoms.

References   [ + ]

1. NIH. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Addiction vs dependence. Available here.
2. The National Alliance of Advvocates for Physical Dependence and Addiction. Available here.
3. The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics. NIH. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Available here.
4. American society of addiction medicine. Definition of Addiction Available here.
5. American Addiction Centers. What Are Some Drug Withdrawal Symptoms? Available here.
6. NIH. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drugs of Abuse. Available here.
7. Nehlig A. Are we dependent upon coffee and caffeine? A review on human and animal data. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1999 Mar;23(4):563-76. Available here.
8. The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics. NIH. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Available here.
9. NIH. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Addiction vs dependence. Available here.