Nutrition Myths
Is caffeine addictive?

SUMMARY

  • 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.
  • Caffeine consumption fits the definition of a mild physical dependency.
  • Through increased tolerance and caffeine daily doses, a tolerance to caffeine is developed, leading to mild caffeine dependence.
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Is caffeine addictive?

Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world with psychoactive properties. It may have positive or negative effects on health, primarily depending on our genes. (read more..)

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)

Physical caffeine dependence

Our body adapts to regular exposure to caffeine (a tolerance to caffeine is developed), 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.

Physical dependence is only one criteria of addiction to the substance, but experiencing physical dependence alone does not mean that someone is addicted. (2)

What is drug 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 (3, 4, 5)

  • 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.

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.

Withdrawal symptoms of caffeine and other drugs

Caffeine withdrawal symptoms are mild and start within 12 and 24 hours after the discontinuation. In some cases the caffeine withdrawal symptoms may last for entire week. The peak occurs between 20-48 hours. 

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 (6):

  • 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)

Difference in the brain areas affected by addiction and dependency

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)

Here is another example of dependency vs addiction.

In the morphine dependency the thalamus and brainstem are affected while in the case of addiction, the reward pathway is affected. (1)

Addiction vs Dependence

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.

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.

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