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One Addict’s Story (part 2)

Published: July 4, 2010

In our last blog, we took a glimpse through the window into the daily routine of a habitual caffeine user. This is not an uncommon experience, and I am sure that many people are able to empathize with this situation. For those of us who swear by our daily cup of coffee, it seems a given that caffeine has an energy inducing quality like none other. Recent studies seem to disagree with this notion however, and researchers are going as far to make the claim that caffeine doesn’t actually bestow upon habitual users the explosion of energy that we think it does.

Research done at the University of Bristol tested the anxiogenic and alerting effects of caffeine on a variety of people whose caffeine use ranged from none at all to excessive use, with several participants having a mean intake of over 400mg per day. For reference, a single cup of coffee has about 100mg of caffeine. During the study, some of the participants took 150mg caffeine pills while others received a placebo. Each participant assessed their level of anxiety, alertness, and headache. Some of the results were expected: the nonusers who received caffeine pills became anxious and the heavy users who received a placebo reported headaches. Other results, such as the level of alertness reported, gave some surprising results. Throughout the spectrum of caffeine use, from nonusers to the excessive users, the test subjects were shown to have about the same level of alertness when given caffeine pills. What is more, the habitual caffeine users who were given placebo showed significant decreases in alertness.

So what does this all mean? Basically, this study is showing compelling evidence that caffeine doesn’t give us the boost of mental alertness that we think it does. Caffeine, instead, only returns it’s users to a normal level of functioning, no more than the 20% of people who don’t use caffeine at all.

When Shots (NPR’s health blog) first reported this study, they interviewed Dr. Petros Levounis, director of the Addiction Institute of New York. Dr. Levounis mentioned that despite these findings, caffeine dependence isn’t an addiction. I understand his statement, as the American Society of Addiction Medicine has included in the definition of addiction: “a diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships.” It would be the rare caffeine user who would steal from family members, or neglect their children in order to get another fix. To counter his statement, however, I must admit to having been late to class or work on more than one occasion because of an overwhelming desire to stop by Starbucks. Additionally, more than one argument could have been prevented had I not been under-caffeinated. While I have not ruined any relationships or been fired due to my caffeine dependence, I wouldn’t say that my jonesing for that morning cup of coffee has been entirely consequence-free. On a side note, I would like to point out that Dr. Levounis works for an institute with “addiction” in it’s name. Finding the term too ambiguous, The American Psychiatric Association doesn’t even use the word “addiction”; they instead only define substance dependence and substance abuse.

So while the experts debate definitions, we will take a break and return in part three with a bit more science of caffeine use and hopefully make some conclusions of our own.