It’s Monday morning. You blink your tired eyes awake, pull your body out of bed, and drag yourself into the kitchen. If the only thing on your mind is how quickly you can get a cup of coffee to your lips, you might suffer from what some call a “caffeine addiction”. To dedicated coffee drinkers who faithfully battle the morning Tim Horton’s line or to stressed out students during exam season, coffee can certainly feel like an addiction. While caffeine is undoubtedly a psychostimulant, capable of producing similar behavioral effects as other stimulant drugs like cocaine and amphetamine, the question is, can we really be addicted to it?
To answer that question, we first must ask what addiction is. Generally, abusive drugs, like tobacco or cocaine, drive the user to continue to take them by positively reinforcing their own consumption. Have you ever heard that the best way to cure a hangover is to have another drink? That’s because alcohol, an abusive drug, causes chronic drinkers to go into withdrawal which either needs to painfully run it’s course or be released by another drug high. Other symptoms like cravings and the development of a tolerance also contribute to the substantial loss of self-control felt by drug addicts, and help maintain the dangerous cycle of consumption by making it very difficult to quit.
It is widely recognized by researchers and coffee-regulars that caffeine can have effects similar to addictive drugs, for example, morning cravings and withdrawal headaches. If you’ve ever tried to quit a coffee habit cold turkey, you might know that a great way to stop the pounding headaches, intense fatigue, or perhaps periods of mild depression, is to have another coffee. But these symptoms are rarely severe and end very quickly.
Many caffeine drinkers also report developing a tolerance – the more coffee you drink, the more you will need to reach the same energizing effect. This occurs naturally overtime with regular consumption and depends greatly on an individual’s sensitivity to caffeine. Researchers believe a tolerance develops because more adenosine receptors are built in the brain’s of “coffee addicts”. When activated, these receptors induce drowsiness: the energizing effects of caffeine are a result of blocking these receptors. Thus, a regular coffee drinker must drink more and more caffeine to inhibit the growing number of adenosine receptors in the brain. However, unlike most drugs of abuse, this process is easily reversible and most people can return to their original tolerance after around two weeks of caffeine-abstinence.
Though addictive drugs also cause withdrawal and a growing tolerance, there are great differences between chronic caffeine and chronic cocaine users. For example, drug abuse is greatly associated with unsuccessful quitting attempts. But there are very few researched cases where caffeine drinkers are unable to quit if actually motivated. In general, caffeine is much weaker at reinforcing itself, and rarely is a real dependency developed.
Part of the difference comes from distinctions at a biochemical level. Addictive drugs all work in part by over-stimulating “the reward system” of the brain. They act directly or indirectly to increase dopamine – the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure – between three main brain structures: one of being the nucleus accumbens. This circuit is activated by naturally pleasurable activities, like food or sex. But, when drugs are chronically abused, they hijack this system and put it into overdrive. Once the drug leaves your system, your dopamine levels drop and give rise to symptoms of withdrawal and cravings.
It is clear that consuming caffeine does activate dopamine release; this can in part explain why our mood increases after having a coffee. However, animal research labs have shown that at levels which represent normal human consumption, caffeine does not increase dopamine in the nucleus accumbens of the reward system, but in another area of the brain. Considering that all addictive drugs have been shown to increase dopamine in this circuit, it seems that this could be the reason why caffeine can only act as a mild reinforcer and is overall not very addictive.
So though you might feel like your reality kicks in only when your coffee does, you probably have a completely normal, non-addictive, obsession with caffeine. Even when considering that 90% of North American adults consume caffeine daily, it’s very rarely associated with problematic use. So enjoy that freshly brewed cup of happiness, or even maybe four.