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Caffeine and Recovery: How Much is too Much?


That first cup of coffee in the morning, a midday pick-me-up, another cup of coffee at our homegroup meeting, an energy drink at 10 pm because we have to stay up to get this last assignment into our sponsor. When we miss that morning cup of coffee, sometimes we get a headache halfway through the day. Is it possible that we have a caffeine addiction? Is caffeine addictive, can you become dependent on caffeine and do you have a coffee addiction? As ridiculous as it may sound, these are things in recovery we have to keep a close eye on.

Caffeine Addiction: Is it Possible?

Your body can become dependent on caffeine. Have you ever drunk coffee regularly, and then cut back or completely discontinued drinking coffee, soda or energy drinks? Do you experience headaches, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, depressed moods or difficulty concentrating? You’re most likely experiencing caffeine withdrawals.

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, while when most people think of stimulant drugs, they think of cocaine or meth. The way that caffeine works in the brain is different than illicit street drugs, it also doesn’t cause self-destructive behaviors in the user. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain because when adenosine binds to its receptors in the brain, neural activity slows down and you feel tired. Caffeine is an adenosine antagonist, and it blocks the adenosine receptors and doesn’t let neural activity slow. Think Vivitrol in the brain of a heroin addict. It blocks the opioid receptors in the brain.

Therefore, when you drink a cup of coffee, you don’t feel tired anymore. The way caffeine works in the brain, it also causes your pituitary gland to secrete hormones that cause your adrenal glands to produce more adrenaline. All of these chemical reactions happening in your body give you that burst of energy that we look for when we drink that first cup of coffee in the morning.

Caffeine also makes the brain produce more dopamine, which affects the pleasure/reward center of the brain. Many illegal drugs affect dopamine levels in the brain, whether they cause the brain to release more or inhibit the reuptake of dopamine. When we drink coffee, our mind tells us it is a reward, it makes us feel good, and our bodies become used to functioning with the caffeine. Caffeine addiction and caffeine dependence are possible.

Why Should I be Careful About Caffeine Dependence?

When we enter recovery, it is easy to switch addictions. It continually changes forms and will even present itself in healthy behaviors such as work and exercising. Addiction also shows itself in seemingly harmless ways, like coffee and energy drinks. Even if subconsciously we get an effect from caffeine we may abuse it.

Most treatment centers don’t allow clients to consume energy drinks or to have them on the property. Banning energy drinks isn’t just a silly stipulation that they’re trying to implement to make you miserable, as much as we may think that at times. The lengths that people will go through to sneak energy drinks into treatment is similar to the behaviors of seeking drugs. The sneaking, hiding, manipulation and lying that surrounds something so simple is scary. To us it may not seem like a big deal, “it’s just an energy drink,” but the behaviors that arise with it are parallel to the behaviors we showed in addiction. People can and do get addicted to caffeine. We have to be prepared to make an entire lifestyle change entering sobriety and continue to make these changes, even when we don’t think they make sense.

When we rely on caffeine for us to get up in the morning, throughout the day, and as one of the only things we’re drinking we tend to drink caffeine alcoholically. Sometimes we end up drinking caffeine that way without realizing that we have been abusing it. We have to be careful of how we consume things in recovery, even if they seem as harmless as one too many cups of coffee. When dealing with addiction, we tend to carry our addictive tendencies with us into all areas of our life. Even healthy or “normal” outlets, we can tend to take overboard.

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