Caffeine is one of the most studied psychoactive drugs out there, and up to 90% of American adults consume caffeine on a daily basis. For many, caffeine provides health benefits like improved brain function, increased focus and alertness, better mood, and a reliable energy boost.
For some people, caffeine might make them feel more anxious. Exploring why caffeine can lead to anxiety can help you figure out if drinking less coffee could be helpful to you.
If you live in the Denver, CO, area and are ready to take control of your anxiety, we invite you to arrange a complimentary consultation with PrimeHealth. Together, we can develop a personalized mental health plan tailored to your unique needs.
Does Caffeine Cause Anxiety?
For many, caffeine can aggravate an anxiety disorder or induce symptoms of anxiousness.
Does caffeine make anxiety worse? Caffeine can make anxiety worse because of its effects on your central nervous system. Caffeine is a stimulant that temporarily reduces fatigue by blocking your adenosine receptors (the chemical messenger that makes you sleepy).
It’s also been found that those who consume caffeine within the first 90 minutes of waking are more likely to experience fatigue later in the day due to the increased recycling of these adenosine molecules.
In people with anxiety, this stimulating effect can lead to heightened levels of negative feelings and, in some cases, panic. You may start feeling uneasy or jumpy. Your heart rate may increase. Many of these side effects mimic classic anxiety symptoms.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Symptoms of anxiety can vary somewhat based on existing anxiety or psychiatric disorders.
Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms include:
- Feelings of tension
- Restlessness, nervousness
- Sleep problems
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Persistent feelings of worry or panic
- Poor concentration
- Increased heart rate
- Tremors, twitching
What are the effects of caffeine on anxiety? The effects of caffeine on anxiety are a worsening of typical anxiety symptoms.
The symptoms of caffeine consumption may include:
- Rapid heart rate
- Gastrointestinal issues
Most healthy adults can tolerate moderate amounts of caffeine without negative side effects, but there are some additional factors at play. How you react to caffeine depends on your anxiety disorder and unique sensitivities to coffee.
People with panic disorder, for example, are more likely to experience panic attacks after they drink coffee. For these people, the jolt of energy stimulated by caffeine can actually trigger a fight-or-flight response.
Guidelines for Daily Caffeine Intake
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines moderate caffeine consumption as up to 400 mg of caffeine per day. That’s about four standard cups of coffee per day.
Keep in mind that espresso, energy drinks, a variety of black and green teas, sodas, and some supplements all have some level of caffeine content. Even decaf coffee contains a small amount of caffeine.
It’s important to read labels on everything you consume if you struggle with anxiety attacks or other conditions affected by caffeine.
It’s important to note that caffeine can also limit the effectiveness of anti-anxiety medications.
Talk to your doctor if you think caffeine is interfering with your medication regimen or if you’re worried about the effects of cutting caffeine out of your diet completely.
Monitor Your Response
Monitoring your response to caffeine’s impact on anxiety symptoms is a crucial step in achieving a balanced and anxiety-free lifestyle.
Start by maintaining a journal or diary to record your daily caffeine consumption and any noticeable changes in anxiety levels. Pay attention to not only the quantity of caffeine but also the timing of when you consume it. Caffeine’s effects can vary depending on when it’s consumed.
Additionally, be attuned to physical and emotional changes — note any increased heart rate, restlessness, or heightened feelings of unease.
Remember that individual tolerance levels differ, so what may trigger anxiety in one person might not affect another in the same way.
By keeping a vigilant eye on your personal responses, you can tailor your caffeine intake to best suit your anxiety management goals.
Why do some people have a bad reaction to caffeine? Some people have a bad reaction to caffeine because they have an underlying condition that amplifies the effects of caffeine. Anxiety disorders are one example.
In my experience, those who are experiencing generalized anxiety and stress are more likely to experience adverse effects of caffeine (anxiousness, feeling “jittery.”, insomnia). Additionally, my patients who experience heightened stress levels throughout the day (often displayed on a cortisol stress test), can experience “adrenal fatigue” much more rapidly.
Caffeine can also affect people differently depending on their age, metabolism, sensitivity to caffeine, and whether they have built a tolerance.
Adolescents not used to a morning coffee habit will likely feel the effects of caffeine much more acutely than adults used to caffeine’s effects.
In some people, cutting back on caffeine can worsen symptoms before they get better. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms can also cause mimic anxiety, particularly in those with caffeine-induced anxiety disorder.
Caffeine-Induced Anxiety Disorder
Caffeine-induced anxiety disorder is a subclass in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), underneath substance/medication-induced anxiety disorder.
People with a true caffeine use disorder display the following:
- A persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to reduce their caffeine consumption,
- Continued caffeine use despite physical or psychological problems aggravated by caffeine, and
- Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal or caffeine use to avoid those symptoms.
Patient story: One of my patients had a high demanding job in sales — he frequently consumed caffeine to increase his productivity and increase alertness. Over time, he felt that he needed to consume more and more coffee to get the same effect. Eventually, this led to insomnia and heightened feelings of anxiety, and physical symptoms such as feeling jittery all day, tension headaches, and irritability.
After decreasing his caffeine consumption, finding ways to relax his nervous system, and balancing cortisol levels, these symptoms went into remission. The patient now maintains a feeling of balance throughout the day!
Caffeine is a psychoactive drug that increases your dopamine levels. If you train your body to expect that dopamine boost at increasing levels, you may experience withdrawal when you cut back.
Headaches, mood changes, irritability, tremors, difficulty concentrating, and fatigue are all common signs of caffeine withdrawal.
Alternatives to Caffeine
Many people consume caffeine for the health benefits that come along with it, namely a boost in alertness to start their day. For some, a daily coffee habit even reduces their risk of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The benefits of caffeine may not be worth it if you’re experiencing worsening anxiety. Whether you’re just cutting back or going completely caffeine-free, you have other options.
Here are some alternative energy sources that won’t trigger anxiety:
- Carob: If you’re cutting caffeine, you’ll need to watch your chocolate consumption. The darker the chocolate, the more caffeine it has. Carob is a good substitute for sugar cravings. It’s gluten-free and easier on your digestion, too.
- Chicory root coffee: Fiber-rich chicory is already a popular addition to traditional coffee drinks for its nutty, earthy flavor and as a way to cut down on the caffeine in your cup. You can also brew it on its own for a completely caffeine-free beverage.
- Ginseng: Many of the health benefits associated with caffeine are similar to the benefits of ginseng. Positive effects include increased energy, sharper cognitive function, lower blood pressure, and an immune system boost.
- Mushroom “coffee” like MUD/WTR: This blend of mushroom, adaptogens, cacao, and masala chai contains about a third of the amount of caffeine in a regular cup of coffee. Adaptogens in the mushrooms are linked to stress relief and immune system health.
- Rooibos tea: This caffeine-free herbal tea doesn’t have a stimulatory effect, so it’s a common replacement for beverages high in caffeine. It’s been linked to lower blood pressure and an antioxidant boost, which could certainly get you feeling better overall.
Lower Anxiety Naturally
Cutting back on caffeine is just one step in lowering your anxiety. Natural remedies and lifestyle changes are all important to your overall mental health.
For example, L-theanine, an antioxidant found in green tea, can be taken in supplement form to help combat symptoms of anxiety during caffeine use.
Regular physical activity reduces your risk of developing a number of chronic conditions, including anxiety and depression. Exercise increases serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, memory, and sleep cycles.
Take your workout outside for the added benefit of a vitamin D boost. Low levels of vitamin D are linked to increased symptoms of depression and anxiety.
I tell my patients to get into nature. In Japan, this is called “Shrink Yoku” which translates to forest bathing. This has been shown to decrease cortisol levels and ease symptoms of anxiety. Grounding (walking barefoot on the beach or grass) can also balance the nervous system and support immunity.
Eat a healthy diet.
A balanced diet is a key component of solid mental health. Leafy greens, healthy fats, whole grains, and fiber-rich foods all support brain health. Supplements can fill in gaps if you feel like your diet is lacking.
Magnesium, zinc, probiotics, and B vitamins are all linked to improved mental health and reduced anxiety.
Balance your circadian rhythms.
Getting morning exposure upon waking helps to release endorphins and supports cortisol and dopamine, reducing the need to reach for that cup of coffee later first thing in the morning. 20 minutes every morning provides a great tool to help you feel more balanced throughout the day.
Improve your sleep habits.
When you’re not giving your body enough sleep, your mind can’t rest, either. Improve your sleep by following a regular sleep schedule, avoiding screens two hours before bed, and creating a calm sleep environment.
Explore herbal remedies.
Chamomile teas, lavender, and lemon balm are all linked to an improved sense of calm. CBD for anxiety or microdosing with common psychedelics are also avenues for anxiety relief, but make sure you talk to your provider about drug interactions.
Regular meditation practice, journaling, and breathwork can all support a calmer nervous system. Add some movement with yoga or stretching when you’re feeling stressed. Mindfulness techniques are also a good way to identify anxiety triggers.
Cold water exposure or alternating between the sauna and a cold plunge can help establish healthy circadian rhythms, balance cortisol and dopamine, and help to release endorphins to get ready for your day without the need for stimulants.
Try mental health counseling.
Therapy with a licensed professional can help you get to the bottom of your anxiety symptoms and learn how to manage triggers. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is popular for navigating anxiety. I also frequently recommend EMDR for patients with complex trauma history.
If you don’t respond well to classic therapy techniques, there are many other options out there that may suit your needs better. Aromatherapy, acupuncture, even equine-assisted therapy are all linked to improved anxiety symptoms and improved mental health.
Caffeine can improve alertness, energy levels, and your ability to combat fatigue at the start of your day. It can also be a trigger for anxiety. If you’re struggling to manage anxiety symptoms and worried that your coffee habit may be partially to blame, it could be time to cut back.
At PrimeHealth, we take a holistic approach to wellness. We know there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to health. Are you ready to take control of your anxiety? Schedule a free consultation with us so we can help you with an individualized plan for your mental health.
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