Caffeine withdrawal: What happens when you don’t get your coffee fix

Many people credit coffee with kick-starting their days. Whether you down a mug with breakfast or grab a cup on your way to work, caffeine helps wake us up and keep us alert.

But what happens when you skip your morning cup of joe? According to experts, you might feel less than chipper.

“Some people experience withdrawal — some more severe than others — when they don’t get their usual morning dose of caffeine,” said Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto.

“This can include symptoms like headache, irritability, depressed mood, fatigue and nausea.”

Why does our body experience caffeine withdrawal?

Since caffeine is a stimulant, it has effects on our bodies just like any drug. Coffee stimulates the brain, helps keep us alert, boosts energy levels and improves our ability to perform certain tasks.

“Caffeine is known to increase dopamine, which is the feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain and plays a role in elevating mood,” El-Sohemy said. “So, if you’re not getting your usual dose of caffeine, you might experience a depressed mood — which is reversed by having some caffeine.”

When you skip your coffee ritual, you’re affecting how your body normally functions. Research out of John Hopkins University found that when people didn’t have caffeine, they experienced withdrawal symptoms — including the ones El-Sohemy mentioned — and others like decreased alertness, drowsiness and difficulty concentrating. Researchers said the onset of symptoms occurred 12 to 24 hours after abstaining from coffee and lasted anywhere between two and nine days.

In other words, going without coffee can make you cranky and miserable.

“Typically, (withdrawal) symptoms are more severe in those who regularly consume more caffeine, but importantly, it varies between individuals,” El-Sohemy said. “This is probably mainly due to genetic differences.”

What’s a healthy dose of caffeine?

A standard cup of brewed coffee has around 130 mg of caffeine in it, and Health Canada advises healthy adults not to consume more than 400 mg (about three cups) a day. But El-Sohemy said if you’re part of the “50 per cent of the population that is a ‘slow’ metabolizer of caffeine” then you should limit your intake to no more than two cups a day.

“Otherwise, it will increase your risk of a heart attack, hypertension and pre-diabetes,” he said.

When to put down the cup

While it’s possible to experience unpleasant caffeine withdrawal symptoms, you can feel sick from downing too much coffee, too. Over-consumption of caffeine can cause upset stomach, headache and anxiety and also harm your ability to sleep.

“Caffeine is a drug, and some people can develop a dependence to it,” El-Sohemy said.

If you want to cut back on your coffee consumption or stop drinking it altogether, El-Sohemy said your body will slowly adjust.

“You can eventually get used to not having caffeine in your system once you go through a period of withdrawal, which differs between people in terms of duration and severity,” he said.

“It can vary from as little as a few days for one person to a few weeks for another.”

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