Do you have a caffeine addiction? It’s not uncommon. As little as 100 milligrams of caffeine a day, the amount in about 12 ounces of coffee, can lead to symptoms of caffeine withdrawal—e.g., headaches and marked fatigue—when caffeine consumption is discontinued.
Higher daily doses of caffeine (the average adult caffeine consumer in the U.S. ingests about 280 milligrams a day) are even more likely to lead to caffeine withdrawal symptoms, and those symptoms are more likely to be severe, research shows.
The Addictive Nature of Caffeine
Caffeine is an addictive chemical compound, meaning its regular use leads to dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal. Once you’ve become tolerant to caffeine, you need more and more caffeine to get its stimulating effects, and if you don’t consume it, your body goes into withdrawal mode.
When you abruptly stop (or substantially reduce) your normal daily caffeine ingestion, a characteristic withdrawal syndrome develops. This syndrome, aptly named “caffeine withdrawal syndrome,” has been well-researched and is included in the DSM-5, the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as a substance-related and addictive disorder.
Common Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal
Caffeine withdrawal syndrome is indicated by three or more of the following classic symptoms:
- Headaches. A caffeine withdrawal headache can be throbbing and severe. While they are considered the “hallmark” symptom of caffeine withdrawal, they don’t always occur. Caffeine withdrawal headaches are reported in about 50 percent of users who suddenly abstain. They are often referred to as the “worst headaches” ever experienced.
- Marked fatigue or drowsiness. Regular caffeine users who abstain report decreased motivation to work, decreased alertness, and more overall fatigue and drowsiness.
- Dysphoric mood, depressed mood, or irritability. Medical experts point out that withdrawal from caffeine can look like mild depression. In addition to increasing or causing feelings of dysphoria, depression, and irritability, caffeine withdrawal, studies have documented, can decrease sociability.
- Difficulty concentrating. Studies show that when regular caffeine users abstain, their performance on behavioral and cognitive tests (e.g., sustained attention) is impaired.
- Flu-like symptoms (nausea, vomiting, or muscle pain/stiffness). Feeling achy and flu-like or having an upset stomach are also common caffeine withdrawal symptoms, although they may go less noticed and less frequently reported.
Timing of Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms
Caffeine withdrawal symptoms usually begin within 12 to 24 hours of stopping caffeine, and they peak after one or two days of caffeine abstinence. They usually last for a total of two to nine days, although caffeine withdrawal headaches may last up to 21 days.
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Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms and Daily Life
As noted above, caffeine withdrawal symptoms are known to impair our ability to function in normal daily activities. A person is considered to be suffering from “caffeine withdrawal syndrome” if symptoms cause significant distress in their interactions with others, work, or other important areas of functioning.
Because of their caffeine withdrawal symptoms, people may be unable to work, study, exercise, or care for children. They may fall asleep at work, end a vacation early, miss a religious service, or cancel a social gathering. About 10 to 55 percent of caffeine users who stop will experience this type of significant functional impairment.
Avoid Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal by Tapering Off Properly
Gradually reducing your caffeine intake over a period of days or weeks reduces the likelihood you will experience any caffeine withdrawal symptoms at all. Research shows that tapering off 25 percent every two days will work best for avoiding symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.
“But even just 15 to 25 mg twice per day, upon awakening and the early afternoon, can help with some of the symptoms,” according to Dr. Ali Canton, MD, of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, whose research team presented a review of the scientific literature looking at caffeine withdrawal at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual 2013 meeting.
Dr. Canton is referring to the fact that doses of caffeine significantly less than one’s usual dose may be sufficient to prevent and treat caffeine withdrawal symptoms (e.g., consumption of 25 mg by a person who regularly consumes 300 mg).
What’s Your Caffeine Withdrawal Experience?
Many people have a tough time trying to give up caffeine, making multiple attempts to quit but ultimately failing. Does this sound familiar? Or maybe you have been able to successfully stop ingesting caffeine. If so, what strategies did you use? Tell us in the Comments section below.
Originally published in 2014, this post is regularly updated.