Is Caffeine Amping up Your Anxiety?
Caffeine is a stimulant. For many people, eating or drinking caffeine when they are anxious, or have a tendency to get anxious, is like throwing oil on fire. It can make the stress and anxiety much worse, much bigger.
A young man I know ended up in the emergency room because of a panic attack brought on from drinking canned energy drinks. When he stopped drinking the highly caffeinated drinks, his panic never returned. (Panic is intense anxiety or stress.)
People react differently to caffeine depending on many factors including relative stressors, physical biochemistry, whether they are taking medications that react with caffeine, and their genetics. You may be more sensitive to caffeine than someone else, and you may be more sensitive to it at different times of your life.
If you are dealing with anxiety, you may benefit from eliminating or cutting back on caffeine.
Caffeine’s physical effects
As I mentioned earlier, caffeine is a stimulant.
Caffeine has the potential of amping up anxiety in at least 2 biochemical ways:
1. Caffeine triggers the adrenal gland’s fight-or-flight hormones. (The same hormones that are triggered by fear, anxiety, and stress.)
2. Caffeine inhibits the calming neurotransmitter, GABA.
Those biochemical changes, and potentially other physical effects of caffeine, can ramp up an “on-edge” feeling and get in the way of relaxation.
The 3 most common foods that naturally contain caffeine are:
- tea, and
- cocoa beans (chocolate).
Other foods that naturally contain caffeine include:
- kola nut (natural to Africa),
- yerba mate (found in South America), and
- guarana (found in South America).
Products that add caffeine include:
- some other sodas,
- power or energy drinks, and
- some medications and supplements.
When I was in college, I was the school newspaper editor and had to pull an all-nighter every two weeks to get the paper out. I was amazed at my ability to stay up all night until I finally thought to read the label on the orange soda I was over-consuming. To my surprise—the orange soda had caffeine added to it.
Supplements created by mixing various components sometimes add caffeine. It shows up on the ingredients list, but many people don’t read the label that closely and won’t know it’s there unless they take the time to look at the ingredients list carefully.
Moral of the story: if you want to limit your caffeine . . . read labels.
Until I was doing research for this article, I never thought about where the caffeine added to foods, beverages, and supplements comes from.
I just assumed that it was extracted from coffee or some other natural source.
It turns out that most caffeine that is used as an added ingredient is concocted in a lab and produced in a factory.
If an ingredients list label says “caffeine” then it is likely synthetic caffeine. If it says the product includes an actual caffeine-containing plant element like “green tea extract” then caffeine has been added to the product via that natural source.
The reason that most added caffeine is synthetic is that it is cheaper to create it with chemical processes than to extract it from natural sources.
(You may or may not care whether your caffeine is chemically produced or natural. I included this info as a FYI.)
The caffeine double whammy
An important concern with caffeine when it comes to stress and anxiety is that caffeine not only adds to a ramped up jittery feeling, it also gets in the way of a good night’s sleep for most people.
For some people, it contributes to the circular thoughts that make falling asleep difficult. Other people may be able to fall asleep when they want, but the caffeine interferes with the quality of their sleep or wakes them up in the middle of the night.
As I wrote in a previous post, Sleep And Anxiety—A Cyclical Relationship , anxiety and sleep deprivation are both a cause and effect of each other. Anxiety contributes to sleep deprivation and sleep deprivation contributes to anxiety.
Common advice is to stop consuming caffeine by 2pm or 3pm so that you can have optimal sleep. (I have found this to be true for myself. Through trial and error I have learned to be strict with myself in holding to a No Caffeine after 3pm Rule—no matter how tempting the caffeine source is.)
7 tips for cutting back on caffeine
1. If you are going to cut down on caffeine, you may want to wean yourself off of it rather than make drastic quick changes in consumption.
2. For improving your sleep, gradually move back the time of your last caffeine for the day until you find a time and amount that doesn’t interfere with your sleep.
3. Reduce portions (i.e. smaller cup of coffee or amount of soda, fewer shots of coffee per cup, less chocolate).
4. Substitute decaffeinated versions of your favorites (but remember that decaffeinated drinks still have some caffeine and it is probably best to stay away from them late in the day).
5. Try some herbal caffeine-free teas. (Roasted Dandelion tea has a robust flavor that is somewhat like coffee – I’m saying somewhat – it is a stretch, but I find it a helpful substitute).
6. Drink more water.
7. Substitute sparkling water with a small amount of juice or lemon for soda. (This gives a sense of a bubbly treat but without the caffeine and with few to no calories).
- Ann Silvers