The word "addiction" is used broadly, and generally lightly, these days. On the one hand, pop psychology seems to append it to nearly anything done with any frequency, and to a range of activities from surfing the web often, using Facebook frequently, or even sex addiction. Popular usage muddies the waters further still. We say we're "addicted" to anything we happen to like quite a bit, including chocolate, coffee, or soap operas. How often, after all, have we heard, "I just can't stop eating these brownies. They're so addictive!" One phrase that's recently come in for more scrutiny is "caffeine addiction." Is caffeine addiction real, or just another example of a buzzword being misapplied? The answer turns out to be nuanced.
Image via nataliedee.comThere are two different ways of looking at the caffeiene conundrum: as dependency, or as addiction. Because the two are so closely related, they tend to be conflated or used interchangeably, but they're actually different. Dependence means that the body has adapted to the substance, builds a tolerance that requires larger amounts over time to acheive the desired effect, and undergoes withdrawals if use stops. Addiction goes beyond the craving for something and becomes an actual compulsion to use that thing. The compulsion becomes such that it interferes with work, relationships, and family. One can, therefore, be addicted without being dependent, or be dependent without being addicted, though the lines are blurred to an extent that the distinction can seem like splitting hairs to a casual observer. The "lift" you get from that first cup of coffee means different things depending on your usual level of caffeine intake. One part, at least, is the same regardless: an upswing of cortisol and adrenaline -- stress hormones that are also part of the body's "fight or flight" mechanism. For infrequent caffeine users, that translates to a feeling of alertness. For habitual users, however, physical dependence sets in; at that point, you're using caffiene less as a "lift," and more as a way of returning to what would otherwise have been a normal baseline of alertness and neurological function. You have, in other words, built up a tolerance. The good news is that if caffeine use is tapered off or halted, the receptors that react to caffeine return to normal function, and the occasional cup of coffee will actually serve as a "pick me up" rather than a stopgap. An article published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse asks the question “Is Caffeine Addictive?” They go on to state, "The common-sense use of the term addiction is that regular consumption is irresistible and that it creates problems. Caffeine use does not fit this profile. Its intake does no harm to the individual or to society and its users are not compelled to consume it. Though cessation of regular use may result in symptoms such as headache and lethargy, these are easily and reliably reversed by ingestion of caffeine." Like any other indulgence, in other words, caffeine can harm if used in excess. And far be it from us to suggest cutting out caffeine altogether. A bit of moderation goes a long way. Postscript: if you decide it's time to come off of caffeine, we have tips. And we also have decaf (our Central Park Dark decaf for Nespresso is lovely)!