Can You Build a Tolerance to Caffeine? What To Do If You Drink Too Much Caffeine

If you’ve noticed growing need to increase your caffeine intake to maintain its energizing effects, you may have built up a tolerance to caffeine.

caffeine tolerance break

Your body will respond to a tolerance to caffeine – here are some of the signs that you might be consuming too much caffeine and how to decrease your dependence.

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Many of us get a caffeine fix each day, either through a morning coffee jolt, a revitalizing cup of tea in the afternoon, or through any number of the usual suspects—soda, energy drinks, chocolate. The question is, do we NEED it to get us through an otherwise groggy morning, to stimulate our brains for a tough school or work assignment, or for an afternoon pick-me-up? If so, you may have noticed a lag in its energizing effects over time. You may have built up a caffeine tolerance.

What is Caffeine Tolerance?

Caffeine is a stimulant that occurs naturally in some foods and beverages, like chocolate, coffee, and tea, and is commonly added to others, like soda and energy drinks, even certain dietary supplements and medications. Research has shown several potential benefits of consuming caffeine, such as mood enhancement, promoting focus, and fighting fatigue. It’s no surprise that people—more than 80% of adults in the U.S.—turn to caffeine sources for an extra boost.

When consumed, caffeine blocks certain receptors in the brain that increase the release of a compound called adenosine, which in turn, decreases fatigue and increases alertness. According to a study published in the journal, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, the effects of caffeine kick in about 30 to 60 minutes after initial consumption and can last an average of three to five hours. Research has shown that the effects of regular caffeine consumption decrease over time, contributing to the building of tolerance. This decrease in benefits may be noted even as soon as within a few days. A study in a 2019 PLOS One journal tested caffeine’s effects on physical performance and found that performance in cyclists was higher on the first day of ingestion and then progressively decreased. The effects continued with daily ingestion for 15 to 18 days.

Signs of Caffeine Tolerance

An early indicator of caffeine tolerance may be noted when your normal one or two cups of coffee no longer has the same preferred and beneficial effect. Perhaps your routine used to keep you alert until midday, but you now find yourself slouching into a sleepy haze halfway through the morning. You might start getting a dull headache before the morning is over. Fatigue, headache, and other withdrawal symptoms could be a sign not only of a built-up tolerance, but of too much caffeine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends American adults drink no more than 400 milligrams per day, about four to five cups of coffee. Keep in mind, caffeine’s effects differ between individuals. Other symptoms of caffeine tolerance or withdrawal include trouble focusing, irritability, anxiety, jitters, mood swings, rapid heartbeat, and insomnia.

How To Avoid a Caffeine Tolerance

So, here’s the tea: you will likely regain your initial energy boost by adding another half cup of coffee to your day. However, these effects will likely wane in time as well. Rather than continually increasing caffeine intake to get back that buzz, you could definitely cut back gradually, such as drinking two cups instead of three or trying half decaf and half-caffeinated, or something similar to slowly wean the potency. You might also try something called “cycling,” which means varying your caffeine pattern from day to day. If you’re used to drinking three cups of coffee each day, drink two the next day, then one, then jump back to three if you like.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your favorite caffeine fix, especially in moderation or on occasion. There’s a difference between enjoying a caffeinated beverage or snack and needing a fix, however. Rather than rely on a constant stream of caffeine, check in with your health and take care that you’re getting adequate sleep and are following a healthy dietary pattern. Those are amazing energy boosters. Adding a warm and, yes, energizing, cup of joe to your morning will be welcome, but not necessary.

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Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD

Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD, has been the Executive Editor of Environmental Nutrition since 2018. As a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Kristen is experienced in the areas of weight management, health promotion, and … Read More

View all posts by Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD

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