|Photo by Flickr user jamesjoel|
Regular caffeine use alters your brain’s chemical makeup, leading to fatigue, headaches and nausea if you try to quit.
Within 24 hours of quitting the drug, your withdrawal symptoms begin. Initially, they’re subtle: The first thing you notice is that you feel mentally foggy, and lack alertness.
Your muscles are fatigued, even when you haven’t done anything strenuous, and you suspect that you’re more irritable than usual.
Over time, an unmistakable throbbing headache sets in, making it difficult to concentrate on anything. Eventually, as your body protests having the drug taken away, you might even feel dull muscle pains, nausea and other flu-like symptoms.
This isn’t heroin, tobacco or even alcohol withdrawal.
We’re talking about quitting caffeine, a substance consumed so widely (the FDA reports that more than 80 percent of American adults drink it daily) and in such mundane settings (say, at an office meeting or in your car) that we often forget it’s a drug - and by far the world’s most popular psychoactive one.
Like many drugs, caffeine is chemically addictive, a fact that scientists established back in 1994.
This past May, with the publication of the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), caffeine withdrawal was finally included as a mental disorder for the first time - even though its merits for inclusion are symptoms that regular coffee-drinkers have long known well from the times they’ve gone off it for a day or more.
Why, exactly, is caffeine addictive? The reason stems from the way the drug affects the human brain, producing the alert feeling that caffeine drinkers crave.
Soon after you drink (or eat) something containing caffeine, it’s absorbed through the small intestine and dissolved into the bloodstream.
Because the chemical is both water- and fat-soluble (meaning that it can dissolve in water-based solutions - think blood - as well as fat-based substances, such as our cell membranes), it’s able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain.
Structurally, caffeine closely resembles a molecule that’s naturally present in our brain, called adenosine (which is a byproduct of many cellular processes, including cellular respiration) - so much so, in fact, that caffeine can fit neatly into our brain cells’ receptors for adenosine, effectively blocking them off.
Normally, the adenosine produced over time locks into these receptors and produces a feeling of tiredness.
|Caffeine structurally resembles adenosine enough for it to fit into the brain’s adenosine receptors (Pic: Wikimedia Commons|
When caffeine molecules are blocking those receptors, they prevent this from occurring, thereby generating a sense of alertness and energy for a few hours.
Additionally, some of the brain’s own natural stimulants (such as dopamine) work more effectively when the adenosine receptors are blocked, and all the surplus adenosine floating around in the brain cues the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline, another stimulant.
For this reason, caffeine isn’t technically a stimulant on its own, says Stephen R. Braun, the author or Buzzed: the Science and Lore of Caffeine and Alcohol, but a stimulant enabler: a substance that lets our natural stimulants run wild.
Ingesting caffeine, he writes, is akin to “putting a block of wood under one of the brain’s primary brake pedals.” This block stays in place for anywhere from four to six hours, depending on the person’s age, size and other factors, until the caffeine is eventually metabolized by the body.