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That sneaky extra cup a day might be doing you more harm than good.

| By Chloe Mcleod | Wellness

Are You Addicted to Coffee? Here Are the Signs to Look Out For

That sneaky extra cup a day might be doing you more harm than good.

Nothing quite beats that first sip of hot coffee in the morning. That delightful aromatic smell is enough to lure you out of your slumber and give you that jolt of energy to kickstart your day. Yep, it's hard to imagine a world in which we don't begin each morning with a cup... or two.

Many of us love our coffee, to the point where we struggle to function (or tolerate others) without it and many of us will have multiple cups per day – we're not judging! For a large proportion of us, drinking coffee is just part of living and getting through the day. But what are the effects of coffee on our bodies? What is the limit we should be aiming for? If we want to cut back, will we experience withdrawal symptoms? If we feel like we can’t live without coffee, what are some tips to lower our dependence?

I've got all of these questions covered for you to take out the guesswork!

What are caffeine’s effects on the body?

Caffeine is a natural stimulant that increases the activity of the brain and nervous system. It's absorbed into the bloodstream and the effects are typically seen within 30-60 minutes. However, it takes up to 12 hours to metabolise caffeine, with the average half-life being four hours (the rate at which it reaches half its peak concentration). This means for most people if you drink a cup of coffee at midday, caffeine will reach its peak by around 4 pm, and not be out of your system until midnight! It is important to note that we all metabolise caffeine differently, so the effects will vary between individuals. 

Some positive effects of caffeine on the body include:

  • Increased feeling of alertness and focus.
  • Reduced perception of tiredness.
  • Reduced perception of effort when exercising (making exercise seem easier).
  • In moderate amounts, it may reduce the risk of some health conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and diabetes.

Some of the negative side effects of caffeine (particularly when consumed in excess) include:

  • Increased feelings of anxiety.
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, nausea, bloating and reflux (particularly when consumed on an empty stomach).
  • Increased heart rate.
  • Disrupted sleep.

What are the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal?

If you’ve tried cutting back on caffeine or forgetting about your morning coffee, chances are you may have experienced some symptoms of withdrawal. The greater your baseline caffeine intake, the more likely you are to notice symptoms of withdrawal.

These symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Muscle pain
  • Anxiety


Symptoms of withdrawal typically begin within 12-24 hours and can last up to a week. Please don’t let the above list put you off cutting back your intake if you’ve been planning on doing so. Not everyone will experience withdrawal symptoms and there are steps we can take to reduce the likelihood/severity of symptoms.

How do you know if you're addicted to coffee?

If you start to experience the above withdrawal symptoms mentioned above when you haven’t had that morning cup, this is a good indicator that you may have begun to rely on caffeine or become addicted to it. For many, the first indicator is a headache brewing when you are yet to consume your first coffee for the day, especially if it is a little later on than usual.

How much coffee is too much?

The million-dollar question! This one really depends on the individual. For general health, caffeine can safely be consumed up to 400mg per day. For women who are trying to conceive, pregnant or breastfeeding the recommendation is less than 200mg caffeine per day. If you suffer from IBS or other gut conditions, we’d suggest limiting it to about 100mg per day given it is a common gut irritant.

The amount of caffeine in coffee varies significantly depending on a variety of factors including where the beans are from and how it’s extracted. Below is the approximate caffeine content of different types of coffee:

  • 125ml filtered coffee = 85mg caffeine
  • 30ml espresso = 60-110mg caffeine
  • 125ml cup instant coffee = 65mg caffeine
  • 125ml cup decaffeinated coffee = 3mg caffeine
  • 1 coffee pod = 60-120mg

As a rule of thumb, one shot of coffee is about 100mg. Don’t forget about non-coffee sources of caffeine including dark chocolate, tea (green and black), cola, and energy drinks as these all add up!

How can you lower your dependence on caffeine?

Like any drug, it is easy to develop a dependence on caffeine. Our body starts to get used to a certain dosage of caffeine and adjusts, so that we then need a higher dosage to achieve the desired effect (such as alertness/concentration). One of the easiest ways to lower dependence on caffeine is to reduce your intake gradually. As an example, if you currently drink four cups of coffee per day, for a week you could cut back to three cups per day. After that week, try reducing it to two cups per day. This will reduce symptoms of withdrawal and help to lower dependence on caffeine.

Another option to lower dependence on caffeine is to periodise and prioritise when you consume it. If you use caffeine for helping to improve focus at work, try to only drink your coffee on particularly gruelling days or when there are tasks you struggle to concentrate on. If you use it to improve exercise performance, try only using caffeine on your harder training days rather than with each training session.

It's also important to look at what caffeine may be masking. If you feel like you don’t have enough energy throughout the day and NEED caffeine to get through, why is that? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating enough and eating the right types of foods? Could there be some nutritional deficiencies impacting your energy levels such as low iron, B12, or vitamin D? Caffeine can be a great performance aid, but it shouldn’t be an ESSENTIAL performance aid. If it is, looking at the 'why?' and seeing what strategies you can implement to manage this are key.

What are some alternatives to coffee?

Thankfully, there are some healthy options that are either caffeine-free or lower in caffeine.

Arepa

This drink/powder is made from a specific type of black currant called a Neuroberry that has 12 times the number of antioxidants of a serving of blueberries. It provides 100% of daily vitamin C needs in a single serving and also contains L-theanine, which helps with improving focus and concentration as well as inducing a sense of calm. Plus, it’s caffeine free!

Matcha

This one had a moment a few years back, and while it still contains caffeine, it's also rich in antioxidants, catechins, and theanine. It's made from ground-up green tea leaves, making the absorption of nutrients significantly higher than traditional green tea.

Water

This may sound a little um, boring, but many of us don’t drink enough water each day. When you're well hydrated, both focus and concentration improve so it's worth ensuring you're drinking enough.

Chloe McLeod is a dietitian and the director of Verde Nutrition Co. Follow her at @verdenutritionco and @chloe_mcleod_dietitian

This article is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualised health advice. If you are concerned about your health and well-being, please speak to your GP, who will advise on the correct treatment plan. You can also call Lifeline 24/7 for mental health support on 13 11 14.

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