Hold that pumpkin spice latte! I know, all of you fall loving, leaf turning, shorter day hugging, autumn spice flavor fans are giving me nasty looks. But it’s not just the sun worshipping summer enthusiast in me trying to ruin your season to shine; it’s the caffeine we need to talk about. I’m talking about all of those caffeine heavy beverages: energy drinks, coffee, tea, etc. (However, those artificially flavored, syruped-up beverages are doing you no good. Trust me. But that’s another story, for another day.) The October issue of Unpopular Science continues our series on “diet” and mental health. Remember, this series is about breaking the mindset of good vs. bad foods and focusing on how what we consume makes us feel. So let’s talk about caffeine.
There are so many things related to health and caffeine that we could talk about, both good and bad. That’s why you see it on so many medical questionnaires. But let’s focus on a mental health aspect since that is what this series is about. First, know that it is not a new concept that caffeine can have anxiety inducing effects on many people. It was nearly impossible to select a specific article for this because the information is so diffuse and has been studied for many years. Just do a quick internet search and you will see tons of info on this topic. Second, let’s add some stats: approximately 90% of people consume some type of caffeine and approximately 18% of the population has anxiety. To me that sounds like there is an overlap of possibly up to 8% or more of the population suffering from anxiety that could get symptom relief from eliminating caffeine. That’s a lot of people that could feel a whole lot better from making a simple dietary adjustment.
But that is still not the main focus of this blog! This article is specifically focused on you, as an individual (and your genes). This is the exciting part about science. We are learning more and more every day and newer research is showing why some people are more susceptible to caffeine induced anxiety than others, and it has to do with your genetics. An article published in neuropsychopharmacology in 2008, (obviously not super new, but a well designed study that I found to be interesting) found that polymorphisms in genes for adenosine or dopamine receptors were correlated with anxiety related responses to caffeine consumption. A systematic review by Fulton, et al. in 2018 (see below for links to all articles listed) analyzed multiple research studies and was able to highlight some of the suspected genetic traits which did, or did not, correlate anxiety with caffeine consumption and possible habituating effects that might occur.
So if you wonder why your coworker can down two energy drinks a day (not saying this is healthy) and seem fine, but you take a sip and feel all over terrible, it might be due to genetics. The best part, you don’t need any fancy, expensive medical test to figure it out. Just listen to your body’s symptoms and see how you feel after eating/drinking it. I call it the Alice in Wonderland test; did the bite of that mushroom make her big or small? Did that sip of black tea make you jittery or calm? And, if you have withdrawal symptoms from stopping caffeine (or anything else) that is a strong indicator that it probably isn’t serving you.
Take home message: If you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks, consider eliminating caffeine for a month and see how you feel. If you feel better, don’t add it back in. If you are a regular caffeine drinker, take note of how you feel immediately after, and every hour for the next 24 hours after consuming it. Are you sleeping well? Do you feel calm? Are you irritable? If you feel great, consider yourself lucky to have the genetic ability to do well on caffeine. If you don’t feel great, consider weaning off your addiction slowly (even consult a professional on how to do it) and replace with non-caffeinated alternatives such as herbal teas.
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