Caffeine: A College Student's Drug
by Ali Johnston | published Mar. 5th, 2019
After a long night out, it is all too easy to wake up the next morning and turn to caffeine for comfort. Whether it’s coffee, tea, soda or chocolate, around 90 percent of Americans are consuming some form of caffeine daily. Kelsey Welliver, a self-employed therapist specializing in addiction and anxiety, weighs in on what makes caffeine such a prominent topic in today's society and the potential of many developing an addiction to it.
“As Americans, most of us have [a caffeine addiction], but we don’t recognize it. It really comes into play when someone mentions that their anxiety has been worse but their life situations haven't really changed,” Welliver said.
Like caffeine addiction, anxiety is another issue that many Americans are struggling with on a day to day basis. Every year, 18.1 percent of the U.S. population battles some form of an anxiety disorder. With both caffeine addiction and anxiety playing such a large role in many of our lives, it poses the question: Is there a connection between the two?
Different Forms of Caffeine
Just because you don't drink coffee, this does not mean you cannot gain an addiction to caffeine. There are still various other everyday foods and drinks that can provide you that a kick of energy. Atia Newman, professor of animation at RIT, has an example.
“At one point, I was drinking two liters of Pepsi a day,” said Newman.
However, her fondness for caffeine didn’t actually start in the United States with Pepsi — it started in England with tea. Newman began drinking caffeine around four years old, and one cup of tea quickly turned into four or five. She noted that the kind of tea that she drank in England was not the same as the tea that is served in the United States.
Newman was used to tea that was much more concentrated and caffeinated. The tea that Americans drink is typically lower in caffeine content because it is often diluted with any water or sugar that is added. But, non-diluted tea can actually have a stronger effect than that of a simple cup of coffee, as tea leaves, on their own, contain more caffeine than coffee beans.
When Newman came to live in the U.S., she left her tea drinking ways once she was exposed to this less potent caffeinated tea. She turned to get her caffeine fix from Pepsi instead.
Even though soda doesn't contain as much caffeine as coffee, it often feels like it gives the same effects because of the high sugar content. Newman doesn’t consider caffeine addiction such a pressing issue for herself, she fears the sugar content more.
“Maybe I’m just in denial,” she said with a laugh.
But, what signs should we look out for to see if a caffeine addiction may be present in our lives? Should we start to worry?
Reliance on Caffeine
Life is stressful in and of itself, and like any other addiction, caffeine tends to become a coping mechanism for all that stress. One more cup of coffee at night may help you stay awake and finally finish that school project, right? And if that worked once, why not repeat the same process for the project due the next night, and the one after that? After a while, it becomes difficult to distinguish between enjoying the effects of caffeine and being addicted to them.
If someone drinks large amounts of coffee on a day to day basis, they develop more adenosine receptors, which is the chemical that lets our brains know that we’re tired and it’s time to sleep. Ultimately, caffeine over time makes us more tired and in order to stay awake in the future, we will need more and more caffeine. In addition to adenosine, caffeine also increases dopamine and adrenaline supply.
“When we’re releasing adrenaline we’re going to be happier, why wouldn’t we want to go back to that?” Welliver asked.
It's not uncommon to hear someone say that they can't get out of bed without having their coffee in the morning, or that they can't function properly without it. Many people experience headaches, fatigue and irritability if they try to face the day without caffeine. Some may even rely on it to just be happy. This is not something that should be normalized — it's actually a sign of drug dependancy.
Caffeine and the Body
Caffeine is a stimulant, a drug that makes you more awake and alert, which is why many people are attracted to it.
“It’s like cocaine or nicotine, it’s all on the same reward pathway,” Welliver said.
However, the problems that comes with an addiction to cocaine or nicotine tend to be focused on by the public quite a bit more than caffeine. Cocaine is illegal because of its addictive and deadly properties, and every product that includes nicotine comes with a warning label reminding the user of its addictiveness and potential health risk. With drugs like these, it's difficult to find the harm in turning to caffeine for a little boost of energy in the morning — especially with it being mainstream in our society. But, when someone begins to become too dependent on caffeine, risky health effects begin to develop just as easily as any other drug.
If too much caffeine is consumed, an individual may find it more difficult to fall asleep — a less severe side effect, but still an important concern. Even if someone is able to fall asleep after consuming caffeine, it is less likely that they will sleep through the night. While this boost of energy may keep the brain focused for a short period of time, if it causes constant disruptions in the sleep cycle it will make it more difficult to concentrate the next day — therefore increasing the likelihood that someone pours themselves an extra cup of coffee. Before you know it, you are trapped in a never ending cycle that is hard to break.
This cycle can be dangerous to those who may already struggle with anxiety. Caffeine and anxiety share quite a few side effects such as agitation, sleep problems, restlessness and increased heart rate. Welliver recommends that people with anxiety try to limit their caffeine intake as much as possible, as using caffeine on top of preexisting anxiety problems can escalate the symptoms. The shaky hands, the sweaty palms, the increased heartbeat and the nervousness are all made worse by caffeine. But even if you don't have anxiety, a caffeinated beverage can still cause similar effects, as explained by Welliver.
"For someone who doesn't have baseline generalized anxiety or situational anxiety, drinking a lot of caffeine can produce the same results as someone who does have that baseline anxiety," Welliver said.
Anxiety is not the only problem that stems from caffeine addiction either. Because caffeine is a pick-me-up, it can make a person more tense, leading to an increased likelihood of high blood pressure and even heart attacks. Too much caffeine is especially dangerous in individuals that are not used to its effects.
A study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found that caffeine increases everyone's blood pressure, but has an even greater effect on those who don't consume caffeine regularly. It's also advised that people who already struggle with issues like hypertension stay away from caffeine, as they are at an even greater risk of heart attacks and high blood pressure. Therefore, putting the abuse of caffeine at the same risky level as other drugs.
Although caffeine can seem scary, as long as consumption is controlled a person can still be perfectly healthy — physically and mentally. But, if caffeine is starting to become an issue in your life, trying healthier alternatives can be a good way to kick the addiction.
“Daily physical exercise will naturally produce the same hormones and chemicals [as caffeine] within your body,” Welliver said. “Often times when we feel tired it’s because our diet’s off or exercise is off.”
During the day, energy will naturally start to deplete but this doesn't mean that another coffee or energy drink is in order. Drinking more water, eating healthier, going for a walk, taking a cold shower and listening to music are all positive and enjoyable ways to get that energy boost that we all need.
These alternatives can take as much or as little time as someone is willing to put into them. Of course, the solve-all would be getting more sleep, but as college students, this can be a difficult feat. Drinking a cup of coffee can seem like the easiest option to gain back the energy from the lack of sleep, especially compared to the idea of changing your whole health routine. But, there are still plenty of less time consuming options as well.
Even just giving yourself something to look forward to at the end of your day can be a big help. Whether it be eating your favorite snack, watching an episode of your favorite show, or just treating yourself in general, future plans will naturally make the body more awake.
So, although a cup of coffee in the morning may seem tempting, it can cause a string of issues down the line that may not be worth the risk. It's completely natural to need a pick-me-up during the lull of the day, but with so many other ways to increase energy and mood, all while staying healthy —why rely on caffeine?
“At the end of the day ...” Welliver said. “... we all just desire to feel better."
Will we choose to fill that desire through a caffeine addiction, or a healthier venue?