How 'Caffeine Intoxication' Fans the Flames of Your Anxiety


Caffeine is a staple in the daily diet of most adults. We drink a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, or maybe its a little bit of tea to get things — and anybody who keeps it to just that first go to jolt to get the day started is probably in the minority. Truth is, the majority of people don’t just stop with that first cup. We go back for a second, third, fourth, and as many cups as we often need just to get through the day, let alone that first one we need just to kick things off. 

According to new research, some of us should avoid that second cup. 

"Caffeine is not the enemy," says Dr. Julie Radico, a clinical psychologist with Penn State Health. "But I encourage people to know healthy limits and consume it strategically because it is activating and can mimic or exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety.”

That’s right, caffeine is considered a great way to improve concentration and focus when bringing the brain up to speed, either because your energy levels are dropping or because you’re still revving up in the morning. But the range of dosage for that effect is generally considered in the 50 mg to 200 mg range. Consumption above about 400 mg at any one time can spark overstimulation and anxiousness, stemming from physical symptoms of an increased heart rate, nausea, or abdominal pain. 

"We want people to consider whether there may be a connection between their caffeine consumption and anxiety," said Dr. Matthew Silvis, vice chair of clinical operations in the division of family medicine at Penn State Health.

Now if you’re curious what that range of caffeine consumption looks like in the morning, a typical cup of coffee will give you about 100 mg, while a cafe-bought cup-o-Joe from Starbucks will be closer to 250 mg. A 12 oz can of Red Bull has a little more than 100 mg of caffeine, but of course, it is easy often that many people drink even larger energy drink cans, reaching or even breaking that 400 mg threshold. Energy drinks are also packed with more sugar than even sweetened coffee contains, often delivering more sugar than even a 12 ounce can of soda. The combination of caffeine and high sugar intake has an entirely different effect on our body than just coffee itself. 

The Food and Drug Administration considers breaking that 400 mg caffeine barrier “coffee intoxication.” The Anxiety and Depression Association of America claims anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting over 18% of the population. That’s a staggering 40 million adults in the nation and an estimated 264 million that are six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who don’t suffer from such disorders, and yet under 37% of those people receive treatment for what are considered highly treatable illnesses. 

“When someone says they’re having an anxiety attack, it’s more a colloquial term, but usually what they are referring to is that they’re anxious about something that’s happening, whether it be with school, work or your relationships,” says Christina Boisseau, an associate professor of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. “There is an identifiable stressor. And when people get really anxious or worried, they can experience heightened physical symptoms of anxiety such as their heart racing and chest tightening.”

When we feel stressed, our nervous system starts to gear up, preparing itself for potential danger and preparing the body to take action. The parasympathetic nervous system, one of three divisions of the autonomic nervous system, steps in at this moment to stabilize all those hormones and calm you down. But when the parasympathetic nervous system isn’t able to do this, a person only continues to rev up with more energy and hormones in preparation of danger. Adrenaline, for example, is the very hormone produced to prepare your muscles for a fight or for running. 

Or take those butterflies in your stomach that border on making you sick when anxiety gets really bad. What’s actually happening is the blood vessels in your digestive system are constricting so that more blood can be used in other parts of the body, effectively starting to shut itself down to help manage the perceived threat. It makes sense that your body would determine using your muscles is a tad more important in a dangerous moment than anything that can be happening in the digestive system. 

So what’s happening during an anxiety attack is an overwhelming rush of hormones being sent or restricted through different parts of the body to fight off whatever threat may be around. The anxiety becomes unmanageable and turns into a full-fledged attack when all those signals aren’t controlled by the brain properly, sending you down that rabbit hole of anxiety.

Caffeine has the ability to trigger these same responses in our body chemistry, sometimes pushing us into a state of overreacting to situations that may not actually be dangerous or worthy of that fight or flight response. We can even become irritable or agitated under circumstances that wouldn’t elicit the same response, either. For those who already suffer from anxiety disorders, the symptoms can be worsened even more through coffee intoxication. Piling even more onto this cycle of anxiety problems brought on by caffeine, our bodies are also capable of growing a true dependency on the drug, going through withdrawal symptoms if or when we attempt to quit cold turkey. 

According to the FDA, you can combat this or manage it by tracking your coffee consumption and learning how much caffeine is in your regular cup (or cups). Research has shown that caffeine takes about six hours to work its way through your body, meaning it’s just as important to track when you consume it as well as how much you’re consuming, ensuring that all those cups of coffee don’t interfere with your sleep cycles as well. 

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