Caffeine is the world’s most popular drug. It is also one of the most addictive. It fuels the mornings of so many people, and without it—days can feel like they’re coming to a total halt.
Why is caffeine so powerful in completely altering the outlook for the day?
The answer lies in caffeine’s ability to alter the chemistry in the body and basically rewire the sleep wake cycle. With such incredible capabilities, it is no wonder the drug leads to such terrible caffeine withdrawal symptoms as someone halts consumption for a time.
To combat caffeine withdrawal symptoms effectively, it is important to first learn how caffeine works.
How Caffeine Works In The Body
Caffeine works as adenosine receptor antagonist. This means that caffeine has a similar enough chemical structure to adenosine, the chemical that when connected to its receptors will tell the body it’s tired. It is so similar in structure that is can find those adenosine receptors and fit in snuggly.
With caffeine sitting in the places where adenosine should be, the sleepy molecule has no chance to bind and just waits for caffeine to be done resting in its spot. Once caffeine loses its affinity for the receptors, the adenosine floods in and you start to get tired.
When a person stops caffeine, they become tired, sluggish, suffer intense headaches, and feel completely unproductive. This is because when a person stops introducing such a potent substance, the individual’s body goes on high alert and takes steps to bring the body back to normal before caffeine came into the picture.
These steps and processes are for the overall good of the body and will help it once again reach a caffeine-less equilibrium, but the wait for it to do so is a tremendously uncomfortable one.
The Top 4 Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms
The following are signs of caffeine withdrawal, complete with tips on what you can do to make the experience as comfortable as possible.
Read on to learn more:
Caffeine Withdrawal Headaches
Caffeine causes vasoconstriction, or a narrowing of the blood vessels throughout the body. This includes the blood vessels in your head.
When you stop taking caffeine, the blood vessels expand to a point slightly larger than their normal circumference. This expansion of blood vessels is recognized in the brain as pain, and headaches are likely to occur frequently until the vessels can return to their normal pre-caffeine diameter.
To prevent headache symptoms, reduce caffeine intake by 25% each week instead of stopping cold turkey. This gradual reduction of caffeine will allow the body adequate time to taper off of the chemical and give all blood vessels an opportunity to return to their normal state at a rate that will be much less likely to induce headaches.
Also, by drinking plenty of water throughout this process, you can help the body with the liquid medium it needs, to allow for healthy cellular processes to occur and reach proper equilibrium.
The feel-good endorphins released during exercise can help with any headache pain and any cardiovascular exercise can aid in proper and healthy blood flow.
Mental Anguish (Anxiety, Moodiness, Sadness)
While in the bloodstream, caffeine can increase dopamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin availability to the brain.
Dopamine is the hormone responsible for the rush of pleasure that opens the flood gates to continued motivation and productivity. Acetylcholine plays a key role in proper muscle contraction but can also lead to the same rewarding feelings of well being that rewire the brain to look for more rewarding stimuli.
Serotonin is the happiness hormone and is the new component of several antidepressants. Caffeine is able to increase receptors’ sensitivity to serotonin. The body is able to make better use of the available serotonin and you feel happy and content as a result.
The increase in these three hormones as a direct result of the introduction of caffeine sounds like a great thing, and it is, but once you are no longer caffeinated, the opposite effect can be seen.
The rewarding feelings due to the influx of dopamine subsides and plummets below pre-caffeine levels—leading to feelings of lethargy and a lack of motivation until the receptors and hormone levels return to normal.
Acetylcholine levels and its receptors drop as well, causing feelings of uneasiness and an inability to get comfortable. You may even begin to feel like you can’t stay still.
While serotonin can be used more readily by the body during caffeine consumption, once the use of the psychoactive drug subsists, serotonin levels plummet. This significant and drastic drop in serotonin as a result of stopping caffeine often leads to feelings of sadness, lethargy, mood swings, and even at times, full depression.
Once a person abruptly stops the use of caffeine, the receptors responsible for binding to dopamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin—no longer have the the rewiring caffeine available to send their affinity for the feel-good hormones into overdrive. They must learn to work on their own once again. The wait for these hormone levels and receptors to get back to normal takes time, and this wait for self-regulation can be a grueling one.
To make up for this discrepancy in the availability of these key hormones, a person could try exercise, meditation, yoga, or other physical practices to make you feel good again without caffeine as a jump starter.
Exercising will release endorphins to make you feel good as a reward and will help train the brain to look to physical activity instead of caffeine as a means of increasing dopamine release and availability.
Creating a list of all the things in your life that you are grateful for is a great tool in releasing serotonin. Meditation and yoga can tremendously lower the accompanying feeling of uneasiness associated with caffeine discontinuation.
While serotonin and dopamine levels struggle to get back to normal, it can become increasingly difficult to concentrate. Even if you are able to complete your work or project that you typically require caffeine to get through, the rewarding feeling that accompanies the completed task, thanks to dopamine—will be lower.
No one operates at full capacity when they are sad, and while going through caffeine withdrawal, moodiness and a lack of internal motivation can make even the most medial tasks difficult.
To improve concentration during this tough time of caffeine detoxification, foods high in brain fueling omega 3s, such as fish and avocado, can protect and enhance mental performance.
Antioxidant foods such as blueberries can increase the cellular activities responsible for healthy brain processes such as concentration and can help reverse some of the wear and tear that heavy caffeine consumption can cause in the long term.
The most common complaint of those with the unenviable task of dealing with caffeine withdrawal is the overwhelming tiredness and lethargy felt during the period of body caffeine detoxification and the bounce back to normal hormone levels.
Along with all the other hormones that are affected by caffeine consumption, add adrenaline to the list. While taking in caffeine, the adrenal glands release adrenaline in high amounts. This is a huge contributing factor in that feeling that you can take one the world after you’ve had your first morning coffee or energy drink.
Once abruptly stopped, the adrenals no longer have the jumpstarting caffeine available to make them pump out adrenaline, and instead, they release the fight or flight hormone in amounts much lower than before the introduction of caffeine.
Compile the lack of energy producing hormones with the influx of sleep inducing adenosine now free to latch on to its receptors that are no longer blocked by caffeine, and you have a real one-two punch of sleepiness.
The best way to prevent these two things from happening all at once and in life altering levels, try to gradually taper off caffeine. This will allow your adrenals to get used to releasing adrenaline for natural reasons instead of just because they’ve seen caffeine.
The taper will allow for some caffeine to still be available to compete with adenosine even at decreased amounts, so you won’t feel as tired as if you just went cold turkey. Exercise and short bursts of intense physical activity can also help get your adrenaline glands back in working order.
Key Takeaways Of Caffeine Withdrawal
Caffeine is an extremely potent and powerful psychoactive drug. Its use completely rewires the brain and body and leads to dependence very quickly. Serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, adrenaline, and other hormones are directly affected by the chemical. This takeover of body functions causes the body to need caffeine to function properly.
The caffeine withdrawal felt from the discontinuation of the drug is immense and can make simple daily tasks seem insurmountable.
To make it easier on your brain and body, try reducing your caffeine intake slightly from week to week. This gradual taper, along with proper diet, exercise, meditation, and water intake—can help make the stoppage of caffeine much more pleasant and manageable.