Most people I know regularly consume coffee. I never liked coffee because it would make my IBS worse, but I did take low dose caffeine pills in the past. Recently, I suffered serious effects of caffeine withdrawal. For about four months straight, I consumed about 100-250 mg of caffeine per day. That is about 1-2.5 cups of coffee, and less than one strong Starbucks coffee. When I suddenly stopped taking the caffeine pills I noticed a few adverse effects.
The withdrawal period lasted for about ten days. I was having daily heart palpitations, extreme and constant anxiety, had a few panic attacks when falling asleep and was overall down and without energy. I was surprised that I had these effects because I assumed I did not take enough caffeine daily to have withdrawal symptoms. Perhaps I am more sensitive than most to the effects of caffeine. That is certainly possible. I became curious as to how common withdrawal symptoms were and decided to write this blog to find out.
Caffeine is a drug
- Neurotransmitters – brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body
Caffeine may be legal and natural, but it is still classified as a drug, specifically as a stimulant. Caffeine is commonly consumed worldwide and poses no immediate dangers to health (unless you drank over 100 cups of coffee at once). Caffeine increases alertness and can elevate mood. Caffeine may be addictive, but I will discuss that in another blog. In the future, I will also write in detail about the effect caffeine has on our brains and neurotransmitters to produce the alertness and elevated mood that we feel.
Thinking about how caffeine affects neurotransmitters is one of the reasons I stopped consuming it. Neurotransmitters are strictly regulated and when they get out of whack you can end up with depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, bi-polar disorder, etc. (I do not think caffeine causes any of these, I am just pointing out what happens when our neurotransmitters deviate from what they should be).
How much caffeine must we consume to feel withdrawal symptoms?
Obviously, this answer would vary by person (depending on how their body reacts to caffeine), but I am going to generalize the answer based on studies. It seems that higher daily intake of coffee (5 + cups a day) produce greater positive effects than lower daily intake (less than two cups per day), but also produce stronger negative effects when going for a long period without coffee (so the highs are higher and the lows are lower with higher intake of caffeine) (1).
One study measured the effects of caffeine withdrawal on moderate coffee drinkers (2). In the first experiment, subjects were given 100 mg, 300 mg or 600 mg of caffeine in a pill once daily (subjects did not know which group they were in). For each group, subjects received a placebo (a pill not containing caffeine) two consecutive days to measure the effects of withdrawal. The study found that all subjects experienced withdrawal symptoms on their placebo days, but the intensity and range of side effects increased with higher dosage. Headache/Poor mood increases were only seen in the 600 mg caffeine dose. Only observed at 300 mg and 600 mg were decreases in activity/alertness scores.
The same researchers also found that on the days receiving a placebo, subjects consuming 300 mg of caffeine daily experienced higher rates of headache, tiredness, flu-like symptoms, fatigue and decreases in alertness (3). They also measured the maintenance dose required to prevent withdrawal symptoms in subjects consuming 300 mg of caffeine daily. It was found that both 200 mg and 300 mg caffeine pills were able to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
- When 0 mg of caffeine was given instead of the normal 300 mg, subjects reported seven withdrawal symptoms
- When 25 mg of caffeine was given instead of the normal 300 mg, subjects reported three withdrawal symptoms
- At 50 mg they experienced one withdrawal symptom
- At 100 mg they experienced two withdrawal symptoms
Researchers found that caffeine withdrawal symptoms were evident following only three days of caffeine intake. Subjects began taking 300 mg of caffeine daily. Subjects then received a placebo after one day, three days, seven days or fourteen days. There were no withdrawal symptoms after one day of caffeine intake. After three, seven and fourteen days of caffeine exposure, both headache/poor mood and tiredness scores were significantly increased compared to subjects still taking 300 mg of caffeine daily.
Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal
There are over a dozen reported withdrawal symptoms but the most common include: anxiety, flu-like symptoms, muscle pain, headache, drowsiness, impaired concentration and decreases in feeling of contentment and sociability (3).
One study measured the effects of caffeine withdrawal on subjects consuming: <100 mg/day, 100-200 mg/day and >200 mg/day (4).
- After stopping caffeine intake: Headache/Fatigue & Dysphoric Mood (state of unease or dissatisfaction) were measured
Below is a chart showing the percentage of people experiencing withdrawal effects when stopping caffeine intake
How long can withdrawal symptoms last?
I was not able to find any scientific studies addressing how long caffeine withdrawal can last. It is commonly believed that withdrawal can last from seven to nine days while headaches can last up to three weeks.
I was surprised to find out that we do not need to take a lot of caffeine to get withdrawal symptoms. I was even more surprised that we experience withdrawal symptoms after taking caffeine for only three days. While withdrawal symptoms may be unpleasant, they are not dangerous. Even so, I do not like the fact that our body becomes so accustomed to caffeine after such a short period. Now that I have been caffeine free for a few months, I feel back to normal. No more heart palpitations, anxiety or body jerks. I will still keep caffeine pills, but I will only use them if I really need them.
If anyone has experienced caffeine withdrawal please feel free to leave a comment. I am interested in finding out if anyone had similar withdrawal symptoms as I had (I feel that I am overly sensitive to caffeine).
- Richardson, N. J., Rogers, P. J., Elliman, N. A., & O’Dell, R. J. (1995). Mood and performance effects of caffeine in relation to acute and chronic caffeine deprivation. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 52(2), 313-320.
- Griffiths, R. R., Evans, S. M., Heishman, S. J., Preston, K. L., Sannerud, C. A., Wolf, B., & Woodson, P. P. (1990). Low-dose caffeine physical dependence in humans. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 255(3), 1123-1132.
- Evans, S. M., & Griffiths, R. R. (1999). Caffeine withdrawal: a parametric analysis of caffeine dosing conditions. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 289(1), 285-294.
- Ozsungur, S., Brenner, D., & El-Sohemy, A. (2009). Fourteen well-described caffeine withdrawal symptoms factor into three clusters. Psychopharmacology, 201(4), 541-548.