General Question

mattbrowne's avatar

Caffeine doesn't create strong physical addiction, in other words it's relatively easy to stop taking caffeine. Why do many people compare it to drugs like nicotine or alcohol?

Asked by mattbrowne (31661points) April 3rd, 2009

Caffeine is a bitter white crystalline xanthine alkaloid that acts as a psychoactive stimulant drug and a mild diuretic (speeds up urine production) in humans and other animals. Caffeine was discovered by a German chemist, Friedrich Ferdinand Runge, in 1819. He coined the term “kaffein”, a chemical compound in coffee, which in English became caffeine.

Most people can go without caffeine with no real withdrawal symptoms. Nicotine is a far different story. Caffeine isn’t that addicting, physically or mentally. It keeps people alert. Some would say that for nicotine as well. It may be true that nicotine has some positive attributes. The real problem are many of the thousands of other chemicals which are part of a cigarette. Would switching to nicotine gum be an alternative? It could still enhance your alertness and productivity.

Caffeine in black and green tea lasts longer, but after lunch only coffee will give you the real kick. National geographic did a report on caffeine. Result: easy to get and un-get addicted. Withdrawal includes headache and drowsiness. Lasts roughly 24 hours. That’s it. Some people rarely drink anything that contains caffeine because it tends to keep them from being able to get to sleep.

Somebody shared the following personal anecdote with me: “I have never touched a cup of coffee in my life. I can’t stand the smell of it. I have to plug my nose when in the grocery store going past the gourmet grinds in bulk. Nasty. Smells like burnt beans. I have heard it doesn’t taste as good as it smells, so you can count me out. I see all the stuff people have to add to make it drinkable. Never cared for tea but at least it smells better. Around the office, the stinky mugs and the coffee breath is so offensive that I am seriously considering sabotage on the office coffee maker.”

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27 Answers

NaturalMineralWater's avatar

Caffeine no longer has any effect at all on me. (Noticeably anyway) .. so I don’t know why people compare it to drugs other than that perhaps it actually works for others.. and that little kick they get is like a “high”.

YARNLADY's avatar

The only reason I can think of is the prevalence of it makes it seems that the addiction is as bad as the others. Why is it so prevalent, if not for the addictive quality?

MacBean's avatar

Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but my personal experience with caffeine withdrawal was fairly beastly. I was used to three or four cans of caffeinated soda per day and my parents went to visit my sister for a week, leaving me with no money and next to nothing with caffeine in it. I tried to stretch it out as much as I could, but it didn’t last. I had a screaming headache, complete with light and sound sensitivity, and my vision blurred with every throb. That kept me awake but I was so tired, I just wanted to die. I was irritable and mean. I couldn’t focus on anything. It triggered panic attacks. I developed body aches and a fever. I felt so sick, I couldn’t keep food down.

My parents came home before the withdrawal was finished, so I could have fixed the problem by starting to drink caffeine again. But I decided, just in case a situation like that ever came up again, I didn’t want to have to go through that misery a second time, so I pushed on through. It lasted four days. Since getting it out of my system, I’ve been really careful about my caffeine intake. I don’t know if it’s all psychological or what, but it has crazy effects on me now. I drove across the country by myself last summer and all it took was cherry Coke to keep me awake all day. A Red Bull can keep me buzzed for 48 hours or more. I had to do another caffeine detox then and it wasn’t as bad as the first time, but… those headaches put my chronic migraines to shame, lemme tell ya.

augustlan's avatar

When I quit drinking caffeine about 15 years ago, I had a rough go of it too. Aside from the headaches, I was so freakin’ tired. I’d been used to drinking Coke and only Coke for most of my life, and quit cold turkey. That said, when I have attempted to quit smoking it was far worse!

Zen's avatar

Need… my… coffee.

Jack79's avatar

Caffeine is compared to drugs because in all studies ever made about how addictive various substances are it rates higher than sugar and even marijuana (which is an illegal substance) and almost as high as cocaine. This in no way implies that caffeine is a drug, or that it should be illegal, or that you could die of it, but it certainly proves that at least some of our notions of “good” and “bad” should be questioned.

Unfortunately, most things that we like are bad for us (chocolates, alcohol, watching TV with a packet of crisps on our lap, pork chops with plenty of fat on them) and those that are good for us are usually not much fun (such as eating grass and running a marathon every morning).

mattbrowne's avatar

@Yarnlady – Why is chocolate so prevalent? Why are cherries so prevalent? Because they taste good.

Why does caffeine withdrawal cause a headache? It doesn’t. I drink 2 cups a day and don’t when traveling in some countries where it doesn’t taste good. Greece for example. No headaches. 90% of all headaches are a result of minor dehydration.

mattbrowne's avatar

@MacBean – Well, maybe it had to do with excessive caffeine intake.

fireside's avatar

@mattbrowne – maybe some people don’t experience it, but that doesn’t mean that caffeine withdrawal doesn’t happen to others.

In the same vein, some people are not prone to alcoholism, but that doesn’t negate its existence.

MissAusten's avatar

I get a headache if I don’t get my caffiene fix every day. Besides my 2 cups of morning coffee, I have one or two cups in the afternoon. If I skip that afternoon coffee, I wake up the next morning with a headache. Not a terrible one, but bad enough to be really annoying. It usually goes away shortly after I have more coffee.

It’s a small price to pay, though. I just looooooooove my coffee!

cak's avatar

@mattbrowne – Well I guess my neurologist was wrong to tell me to wean off of caffeine, years ago, instead of going cold turkey. she wasn’t

In fact, she was pretty adamant about easing the transition to keep some of the withdraw symptoms from occurring. I had been experiencing some extremely severe migraines, and caffeine was a trigger. It took a little longer to wean off of caffeinated drinks, but it was much more pleasant her way, vs. my way cold turkey.

Instead of declaring that this doesn’t happen, maybe consider that some people don’t experience the symptoms. It happens. Just like with certain medications. Some people have symptoms, some don’t.

dynamicduo's avatar

Caffeine does not really affect me. I can drink a pot of freshly brewed fresh ground coffee and go to sleep 5 minutes later. I like to drink it and I enjoy doing so, but I am not one of those people who is a zombie until they drink a cup.

That said, most people are not like me, and caffeine affects them. Thus, off the bat I acknowledge that my experience and interaction with caffeine is not normal and is not what most others experience.

Thus, it’s not a far thought to understand that for some percentage of coffee drinkers, caffeine affects them very much, to the point where it can cause withdrawal headaches and other signs of actual addiction. This has been documented in the medical world, studies have been done, et cetera.

It is not wise nor effective to make blanket statements regarding drugs and how they interact with people, because we know that there are wide ranges of effects as a cause of our brains not being identical.

EmpressPixie's avatar

I’m sorry, @mattbrowne, as you are the one going against conventional wisdom (caff withdrawal = monstrous headaches), you need to provide the empirical evidence. Anecdotal doesn’t count. Please linky, linky.

cak's avatar

@EmpressPixie linky, linky….lurve for that one! I wish I could give you more than one!

Aethelwine's avatar

When I was pregnant, I had no problem giving up smoking. It was when I had to limit my caffeine that I had a problem. I had the same withdrawal symptoms as @MacBean. I am now back to drinking 5 cups a day and I get very upset if I wake up in the morning to find that I only have 2 scoops left in the package. I can live without cigarettes and alcohol, but I will be a sad panda if you take my coffee away.

EmpressPixie's avatar

@cak: It’s the caffeine. It makes me hyper in the morning. Hyperactivity shows up in my speech patterns.

fireside's avatar

@jonsblond – ohhh, you’re chocolate! I thought for sure you would be jelly to go with the peanut butter.
This is a much better pairing!

Aethelwine's avatar

@fireside Ha! I brought up chocolate and blondesjon thought everyone would assume jelly would go better with pb. There’s no caffeine in jelly! (like how I tried to stay on topic) :)

cak's avatar

before this thread, I hadn’t considered the return to caffeine. All of a sudden, I want all things caffeinated.

mattbrowne's avatar

@fireside and @cak and @EmpressPixie – Yes, you are right to point out that symptoms can be very different between people. There might be or there might not be a nocebo effect. I acknowledge that I was making a generalization in my comment. My mistake. My point is, I’m having trouble putting caffeine in the same league with alcohol or nicotine, let alone heroine where people experience real cold turkey and the term is appropriate. Here’s a link

Caffeine is addicting (a myth?): Scientists do not yet agree that caffeine is dependence-producing, according to DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) criteria. While people have marked withdrawal symptoms from using too much caffeine, withdrawal alone is not sufficient to diagnose dependence (“addiction”). Also, caffeine does not have the same “dysregulating” effect on the “dependence pathway” (mesolimbic dopamine system) of the brain, like cocaine or amphetamine do.

YARNLADY's avatar

@mattbrowne Yes, chocolate and cherries taste good, but coffee does not, so that certainly wouldn’t explain why it is so popular.

mattbrowne's avatar

Of course I meant heroin related to experiencing cold turkey.

fullOFuselessINFO's avatar

i have no experience with heronie or cocaine or anything on that level…
but i can honestly tell you that i am ADDICTED to caffiene.
diet coke with lime to be exact.
if i dont have it by noonish every day i get a headache…
right over my eyes.
its real.
caffiene addiction.
it sucks.

mattbrowne's avatar

@fullOFuselessINFO – Sorry to hear that. Ever tried to quit?

MadParty's avatar

i honestly have no idea why caffeine is even in that category

MeinTeil's avatar

I think a physical addiction is possible.

I get severe headaches if I forget to drink coffee in the morning.

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