Being hyped up on caffeine may mean you can operate at 1.5x speed, but it could also be triggering a range of unpleasant consequences, including anxiety and panic attacks.
So, while it’ll pep you up like an energiser bunny, it can also push you into overdrive.
But this isn’t a problem everyone experiences across the board. It’s believed that some people may be more susceptible depending on their capacity to metabolise caffeine, which is much lower in individuals carrying a certain genetic polymorphism (aka a variation in their DNA sequence).
This means some of us are sensitive to the effects of caffeine, while others can happily drink a triple espresso with no qualms.
What are the effects of caffeine in the body?
Caffeine in a stimulant drug, so yep, it stimulates you.
Caffeine closely resembles another chemical that can be found in our body called adenosine. Adenosine is a depressant, so its role is to make us sleepy and slow down our nerve and muscle activity. Adenosine is mainly produced as a result of intensive brain activity or physical activity. It makes sense then that our adenosine levels are lowest in the morning, and gradually increase throughout the day, making our body and brain less alert.
Since caffeine and adenosine have a very similar structure, caffeine can bind to the adenosine receptors in our brain, which prevents the action of adenosine. This means instead of getting sleeping and winding down, we get ramped up and our cellular activity increases.
Caffeine has a half-life of about 6-8 hours, which means it takes around that amount of time for your body to get rid of half of the caffeine from a cup of coffee you just drank. So, having a coffee at 4pm means you’ll still have a large amount of caffeine in your system at 10pm when you’re trying to sleep.
Interestingly, another role of adenosine is to dilate the blood vessels in the brain, so we can take in more oxygen when we sleep. Caffeine prevents the adenosine from opening up these blood vessels, which means they actually constrict instead. This is why we often find caffeine in pain medications, particularly for headaches, because vascular headaches can be relieved by narrowing the blood vessels. This is also one of the reasons why caffeine withdrawal usually results in headaches.
How could it be causing anxiety and panic attacks?
Studies have found that having just two cups of coffee (which is approximately 200mg of caffeine) increases the chance of anxiety and panic attacks in those people who are sensitive to it.
So, why does this happen?
Firstly, as we discussed above, coffee blocks the adenosine receptors in the brain, which means we don’t get sleepy at night. This leads to sleep deprivation, which is a well-established trigger and cause of anxiety.
Secondly, caffeine increases the stress hormones in our body, including cortisol and adrenaline, so essentially caffeine recreates a condition of stress in the body. Caffeine is also thought to reduce the activity of the enzyme that’s responsible for breaking down these stress hormones, so they can hang around in our system for much longer.
Finally, caffeine may be linked to a magnesium deficiency. It’s proposed that caffeine may prevent the intestinal lining from absorbing magnesium. Caffeine is also a diuretic, so if you drink a lot you’ll be peeing out more minerals like magnesium. How does this exacerbate anxiety? Well, some studies have found a link between magnesium deficiency and depression and anxiety. Magnesium plays a role in the activation of our stress response (‘fight’ or ‘flight’), and a deficiency in magnesium can make our body less resilient to stressors from our environment. But overall, we need a lot more high-quality research to confirm this link.
How much caffeine is too much?
This depends on how sensitive you are. For me, I’ve worked out my own personal threshold is about 3 cups of tea or 1 cup of coffee (with 1 shot).
Health guidelines recommend that we can safely consume 300mg of the stuff a day, which is about 4 or 5 cups of coffee.
How much coffee is in different foods and drinks?
Caffeine content can be affected by heaps of different factors, including the bean, roast style, how the coffee has been made, and the size of the coffee. But here’s a rough guide:
- Espresso (30-50ml) – 60 – 125mg (this includes small latte’s, cappuccinos etc.)
- Energy drinks (250ml can) – 80-100mg
- No-Doz (1 tablet) – 100mg
- Instant coffee (1 tsp) – 60-80mg
- Dark chocolate (50g bar) – 60mg
- Black tea (250ml cup) – 50mg
- Coke (375ml can) – 50mg
- Green tea (250ml cup) – 35mg
- Milk chocolate (50g bar) – 10mg
My personal experiences
So, you probably guessed that my own anecdotal experiences are that this worked massively well for me.
I haven’t been diagnosed with anxiety or panic disorder, but I was just feeling more ‘on-edge’ than usual. I was noticing sweaty palms, butterflies in my stomach, and just a general sense of hyped up stress. I felt at times what I think must be the early stages of a panic attack, where the anxiety gradually builds up until it’s sitting super high in your throat and it’s hard to keep at bay.
I tried meditation to counteract coffee intake, but I was too hyped up to sit still and focus on my breath.
How do I know it’s actually caffeine and not just all in my head? Well, I don’t really, but I unknowingly took a Panadol + caffeine tablet recently and had jitters like a cornered squirrel so I’m fairly confident it’s the caffeine.
I’ve had these symptoms from caffeine for ages, but I was super resistant to cutting it out because I love the taste of coffee and it was a firmly established highlight of my morning routine. I’d really look forward to my daily cup of coffee and also the social interaction that usually comes with it. We’d also just bought a really expensive coffee machine, and I didn’t want to miss out on my upcoming education to become a coffee been expert (aka coffee snob). Finally, I often suffer from constipation and coffee really helped to move things through!
But, despite all these reasons, it got to the point where it wasn’t worth it for me and I wanted to experiment and see whether cutting back would actually make a difference.
And so far, it’s been a seriously positive move on my behalf. Instead of going cold turkey and having no coffee at all, I simply switched over to decaf.
How is decaf coffee made?
There are two main ways to remove caffeine from a coffee bean, either ‘solvent’ / chemical-based (using methylene chloride or ethyl acetate), or ‘non-solvent’ / chemical-free.
70% of all decaf coffee is made using chemicals. The chemicals used for decaffeination are obviously considered safe and are believed to mostly get burnt off in the roasting of the coffee beans – but for me I still prefer a more natural approach, like the ‘Swiss water process’.
Instead of soaking the coffee beans in a chemical, the ‘Swiss water process’ relies on solubility and osmosis to remove the caffeine from the beans. This is much more my cup of tea (or coffee).
It’s worth saying up front: it’s really hard to find a good decaf coffee. After lots of testing, this has been my favourite one so far to make at home.
Decaf coffee will also still contain some caffeine, which will vary greatly depending on the bean. But this is actually a really small amount in context, like 6mg per cup of coffee.
The caffeine in tea leaves is also removed through the same processing methods as coffee.
For those of you who claim you’re addicted to coffee, you might be interested to know that caffeine doesn’t trigger pathways in the brain that are associated with addiction, so it’s actually not considered an ‘addictive’ substance like other drugs., if you’re used to having a heap and you go cold turkey, you might experience some withdrawal symptoms. The sensible way to avoid these is to cut back slowly. Alternatively, woman-up and push through these symptoms, they only last 24-48hrs.
So, if you’re prone to anxiety or even just feeling a bit on edge, I’d challenge you to try making the switch to decaf. You still get the same taste and social experience, without the sweaty palms – it seems like a no-brainer to me.