Many do not think of caffeine as being a supplement per se as it’s a naturally occurring substance found in things like coffee, chocolate and tea.
When you think about it though, caffeine is one of the most used and abused supplements in the world. From the jungles of Asia to the small diners of middle America, people love their caffeine.
Most people in the United States start their day off with a few cups of coffee. Some don’t stop drinking coffee once they start until their day is over. I know people that will drink up to ten cups of coffee per day.
We all know people that literally cannot function without coffee or some other source of caffeine. Americans drink approximately 102 billion cups of coffee every year. That’s a ton of coffee.
Caffeine is a known stimulant. It’s a drug that stimulates our nervous system and gets us going. The issue is that it often keeps us going longer than we want. Even after we stop drinking it, caffeine stays in our system for hours. This can can cause issues in many that are predisposed to anxiety or already suffer from it.
The rates of people suffering from anxiety disorders is on the rise. It seems like our society is just getting faster and more stressed out on a daily basis. With that in mind it certainly makes one wonder, does caffeine increase anxiety?
My first inkling
I never used to have a problem with caffeine until I did. It was like a light switch for me. It just came out of nowhere to be honest. I was in college and moronically slugging down diet soda after diet soda. I was also inhaling pre-workouts loaded with insane amounts of caffeine.
I never used to think about my caffeine intake at all when I was in my late teens and early 20s. I could have a lot or a little and still feel fine. I didn’t even drink coffee in those days although I would have the occasional energy drink. I shudder now to think that I used to drink those. If you’re reading this and drink them still, please stop. Your heart and liver will thank you later.
Anyways, out of the blue one day after taking another full dose of a popular pre-workout, I felt totally different. I felt like I wanted to jump out of my skin. My heart was going a million miles a minute and I felt like I was going to die. I was also having difficulty breathing. It was terrifying. I eventually ended up in the emergency room just to be told that I needed to relax. What a thing to tell an anxious person.
What took me a while to figure out was that I had experienced a panic attack. Likely caused by a combination of stress, too much alcohol (hey it was college) and an awful diet containing high amounts of caffeine, my body had put it’s foot down and decided that it had enough.
While I changed those poor lifestyle choices a long time ago, I still continued to flirt with caffeine here and there afterward. I noticed that after that initial experience, I could never tolerate caffeine very well again which led me to the conclusion that it played a major role to begin with.
What I didn’t know then and what many don’t know now is that you can actually overdose on caffeine. Most people think that they will just get a littler jittery if they have a little too much caffeine but you could likely experience far bigger issues than that.
Symptoms of a caffeine overdose can include dizziness, irregular heartbeat, trouble breathing, chest pain and convulsions. Those are some serious issues for something that we rarely think twice about before sucking down.
Did I overdose on caffeine? I can’t say that for sure but taking in high levels of caffeine definitely affected my nervous system in a negative way.
After my initial issues, I avoided anything with caffeine in it for a long time. I was super sensitive to it and if I had even the smallest amount, I would feel like I was going to jump out of my skin again.
I ended up getting really into green and black tea about two years later and found that I could tolerate it well. I love tea and it has fantastic health benefits. I can write a whole blog on tea alone. Maybe that’ll be my next blog.
Anyways, I did not find that I had the same issues with the caffeine in tea that I did with energy drinks, soda and pre-workout supplements. Most likely because tea has very little caffeine but I think that there’s just something different about tea than coffee.
Tea is known for making people feel relaxed and happy while coffee is known for making people feel nervous and jittery. At least that’s how it works for me and apparently many others.
Before I get the comments on it, I know that there is the rare individual that feels more relaxed with coffee than they do without it. There’s always a small percentage of people that will have the opposite reaction to certain drugs and supplements than they should. I have no idea why that happens but I know that it does. I know people that can drink a trenta dark roast from Starbucks and go right to sleep. Freaks.
While I never went back to energy drinks, diet soda or commercial pre-workouts, I eventually got a demanding job working long hours. For a period, many of those hours were overnight during the third shift. 16 or 20 hour shifts were not uncommon.
With all those odd and long hours, I ever so slowly started dabbling in coffee. I had never been a coffee drinker before. At first, it would just be when I really needed it at two or three in the morning. Just to stay up. It wouldn’t even be every day at first. It would be every few days. I didn’t have any kind of craving for it in the beginning. It was a conscious decision to drink it.
Eventually, every few days turned into every other day. Smalls turned into mediums. Light roast turned into dark roast. Before I knew it, coffee was a pretty near daily thing for me. I had unfortunately inched my way back into a caffeine habit without really thinking about it.
More of the same
As I gradually increased my caffeine intake over the last 5 years, I did slowly start to experience some of the same issues that I had when I was younger.
There were a lot of times over the past five years that I felt unnecessarily stressed or anxious. I just chalked it up to stress from work. Long hours and weird shifts will do that to you. I never really thought about the coffee I was drinking.
Anxiety for me shows up in a few ways. It’s different for everyone and nobody has the exact same symptoms. It’s also evolved for me over the years. Overall, it’s a feeling of severe stress no matter what I do.
Think of the most stressed out that you have ever felt. Now imagine feeling like that for weeks or months at a time. That in turn causes me to feel totally burnt out. My mood suffers and I become extremely irritable.
While I never reached the anxiety levels I had reached at the peak around 2008, I definitely had been feeling stressed and worn out.
Even though I felt like this, I didn’t really make the connection to the caffeine in the coffee. I had stopped feeling much of an energy burst from coffee as well. I just continued to drink it because it was a habit and it made me slightly more alert.
I rarely have drank more than 3 or 4 cups of coffee in a day but I had gotten into a habit of starting my day with coffee. I would wake up and have at least two cups of coffee on an empty stomach, which likely makes it hit your system much faster.
It did help with my workouts but I realized that I was feeling anxious and my heart was beating too fast for what I was doing. It was making me feel paranoid and actually start to impact my workouts negatively towards the end.
Coffee was also hurting my energy levels. My energy would drop off in the afternoon but I would still feel on edge. I would get to work and feel like I needed a nap.
At the same time, I couldn’t relax. It’s a weird feeling but if you are a coffee drinker, you have likely experienced it. It felt like my adrenaline was constantly running and it was totally wearing me out.
When I totally stopped caffeine in the past, I definitely noticed that I felt much better overall. Much calmer and less anxious. It seems less than smart that I would go back to caffeine then but like I said, it happened gradually before I really recognized it to be an issue.
Up until very recently, I was still drinking coffee most days. I would try not to drink it every day but it would still end up being most days. I have tried decaf and half-caf in an attempt to ween off slowly but I would always go back to normal strength coffee.
Aside from coffee, I intake very little caffeine. I do not currently take any pre-workout supplements that contain caffeine. I am currently experimenting with a nootropic that contained about 100 mg of caffeine although I have not been taking it very often and would not take it on days that I had coffee. At least I was being smart in that aspect.
I began to rethink my usage of caffeine and coffee after hearing a discussion on how caffeine stimulates the nervous system and stresses us out.
Our brains work in odd ways but after hearing that, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew that caffeine was a stimulant for some reason didn’t think it would be a huge deal if I had some in coffee, since it’s something found in nature. How bad could it be? Everyone drinks coffee.
As I began to think more and more, I began to think about a lot about how I had been feeling since I started to drink coffee. Stressed out. Worn out. Irritable. Anxious. Nervous. All the above.
A lot of that is probably just my nature but I came to the realization that something known to stimulate your central nervous system certainly wasn’t helping me.
Taking a break
I decided that I was going to stop drinking coffee. Although I wouldn’t say I am the biggest coffee lover, I definitely enjoy it. It was something I looked forward to every morning. I like the ritual of either making coffee at home or going to buy it at a coffee shop. I think the ritual ends up being harder to quit than the substance itself for many addictions.
After being reminded how caffeine affects the nervous system, I did a little more research into it before I came to the decision of giving it up although I was pretty set on it. What I read really made me rethink coffee and caffeine.
After reading how high levels of caffeine can negatively affect the body, I decided that I was going to take a break and go on a detox.
I had taken breaks from coffee in the past since I began drinking it but nothing too prolonged. I was usually back drinking it within a week or so.
In terms of caffeine and coffee, there are two major parts of your body it affects when it comes to anxiety. The brain and your adrenal glands.
Caffeine and your brain
As I did more reading on it, I found a really helpful article which was ironically written by a coffee company. The article discusses how caffeine mimics stress and increases heart rate, blood pressure and your stress hormone levels.
The three major stress hormones are Cortisol, epinephrine and adrenaline. According to the article, caffeine can more than double your blood levels of cortisol and epinephrine. That’s both scary and problematic for many. I doubt that there’s any adult living in society today that wakes up and says “hey I think I need to double my stress hormone levels today”.
I know that coffee and caffeine can make us feel wired, but I didn’t know that it actually raises our stress hormone levels. That tells me that it’s stressing our body out. I don’t think that many others that consume it realizes that either.
The article also goes on to say that caffeine hinders GABA. GABA is a neurotransmitter which is closely tied to happiness and relaxation. Low levels of GABA in the brain have been linked to anxiety disorders and panic attacks.
I currently take a supplement that contains GABA so I was a little upset to hear that I have probably working against it by drinking coffee without knowing it for months.
Caffeine and your adrenals
The adrenal glands are two endocrine glands that sit above your kidneys. They are responsible for producing hormones that you can’t live without, including stress hormones.
During frequent or prolonged periods of stress, the adrenal glands become fatigued from producing high levels of stress hormones. This condition is know as adrenal fatigue. Things like a poor diet, stress and too much caffeine over time can put a beating on your adrenal glands and throw them off balance.
Symptoms of adrenal fatigue include fatigue, inability to handle stress, anxiety, depression, weight gain and insomnia. While there is some debate in the medical community about adrenal fatigue, there are many accounts of people reporting that it is a very real condition that they have suffered from. I know for a fact that I have in the past.
Caffeine can put excess stress on your adrenal glands due to the fact that it raises your stress hormone levels. Now imagine the impact that can have on your stress levels when you’re drinking cup after cup of coffee or can after can of energy drink.
The constant intake of caffeine is causing your brain and body to produce stress hormones around the clock.
Think about some of the pre-workout supplements that have up to 400 milligrams of caffeine. Can you imagine the stress those supplements are putting on peoples bodies? Most people don’t even check the caffeine content before they take it.
People don’t typically sip pre-workout supplements. They usually shotgun them on the way to the gym so it hits your system all at once. Add to the fact that those same individuals are likely getting caffeine through additional sources throughout the day as well.
I was that person. Between diet soda and pre-workout drinks, I had no idea how much caffeine I was taking in on the average day but I know that it was a lot. Enough to sensitize my system to caffeine ever since and cause me some serious issues.
Since I have stopped drinking coffee I feel so much better. I do not feel like my nervous system is constantly on overdrive. I have switched to green tea and don’t feel any of the same symptoms as I was feeling with coffee. Green tea is far gentler than coffee and contains much less caffeine.
I am going to wait a bit longer before I make a final determination but there’s been enough improvement so far for me to decide that caffeine was playing a major role in how I was feeling. I won’t blame it completely but I will say that it was likely the gasoline that was starting the fire.
I will definitely keep those who are interested updated as I go forward without coffee.
My goal of this article is not to scare people into giving up their daily cappuccino or dumping our their pre-workout supplements although you would likely experience a positive benefit.
My goal is to get people to consider the role that caffeine plays on the body, particularly if you are having issues with stress or anxiety. I was dumb enough to take in high levels of caffeine without ever thinking about it. I don’t want anyone else to learn that hard way as I did.
If you experience anxiety often or at high levels than it is at least worth looking into and considering if you take in a fair amount of caffeine on a daily basis.
I know that not all of you have had negative experiences with caffeine and I totally get that but many people suffer from anxiety and don’t always make the connection. It can be harder than you think.
If you’ve read this far you probably will guess that my final verdict on caffeine is that it likely contributes to anxiety for those who suffer from it or are prone to it.
Has caffeine ever caused you to feel anxious or stressed out? I am very interested to hear your experience with it down below.