Coffee drinkers make jokes about their morning cup being their salvation—the essential ingredient in their ability to function. But there’s truth in humor: Coffee can be addictive.
If we skip our regular cup of coffee in the morning, many of us experience headaches—a symptom of withdrawal. And while we think, “I could quit if I wanted to,” studies show that more than half of caffeine consumers say they’ve had difficulty quitting or reducing caffeine use, even if they’re told that they have another condition, such as a bleeding disorder, heart problem or a pregnancy, that requires it.
American University psychology professor Laura Juliano, Ph.D., helped outline the symptoms for “Caffeine Use Disorder,” a research diagnosis that is listed as an emerging “disorder of interest” in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) put out by the American Psychiatric Association. Juliano says that the criteria for diagnosing drug problems and disorders also apply to caffeine. So if you experience withdrawal symptoms upon reducing your intake of caffeine and you’re unable to quit even if you’ve been told you should, you may have Caffeine Use Disorder.
“While many people can consume caffeine without harm, for some it produces negative effects, physical dependence, interferes with daily functioning, and can be difficult to give up, which are signs of problematic use,” she says.
To determine if you have a potentially significant problem, start by asking yourself a few questions: “Have I been told that caffeine is causing me harm? Have I tried to quit and not been able to? Do I experience withdrawal symptoms when I try?” If the answers to all of those questions are yes, you may have Caffeine Use Disorder.
That said, don’t rush to label yourself. Someone who drinks a few cups a day and stops before noon but has no sleep issues or other conditions affected by caffeine can be classified as “dependent”—meaning she may suffer withdrawal symptoms if she doesn’t have coffee one day—but she doesn’t necessarily have this disorder. Plus, there are loads of benefits to your dark brew. YouBeauty co-founder and Chief Wellness Officer at the Cleveland Clinic Michael Roizen, M.D., notes, “The health benefits of coffee are substantial.” That’s because coffee is rich in antioxidants and is linked to reduced risk of skin cancer and a lower risk of depression.
Adds Dr. Roizen: “It takes an awful lot of caffeine to get a health problem that outweighs the benefits—unless you have migraines, anxiety, gastric upset or arrhythmias triggered by coffee.” Juliano agrees that plenty of people who are dependent on caffeine don’t have a problem.
Even if you don’t have the disorder, it’s good to be aware of your caffeine intake. Most people don’t know what theirs is because manufacturers are not required to label caffeine amounts. Based on current research, 400 milligrams per day—the equivalent of about two to three 8-ounce cups of coffee—is the recommended limit for a healthy adult. Pregnant women should consume less than 200 milligrams per day.
If you’re drinking coffee within those ranges and have no health issues, but are a bit concerned about your caffeine consumption, there are ways to cut back slowly without going through full-blown withdrawal. Juliano recommends mixing in decaf or reducing the number of daily cups you drink over one to four weeks. “Doing it all at once can make you feel awful,” she says. “Try to wean slowly.”
And take heart, coffee lovers: Remember that, in the absence of any issues caused by caffeine, the java has big health and beauty benefits. Plus, those beans are downright delicious.