Is Caffeine Addictive?
As exams approach, students everywhere reach for their coffee mugs, their Vivarine and No-Doz. Legions of wide-eyed and shaky young people stay up late into the night, printing out final papers and cramming a year worth of information into their over-burned minds. Falling asleep over books is not acceptable at this time of year. But this is not a new thing; many students have a late-night lifestyle supported by caffeine, getting an average of 5 hours of sleep a night. These young people are a part of the nearly 80% of Americans who depend on caffeine (1). They use it to stay awake when their bodies tell them they need to sleep. Many people use it simply to feel more awake or simply because they like the taste of coffee, sodas or teas which contain the drug.
For those who love coffee, the taste is often cited as the reason for the "addiction" and the use of that word does not imply anything like a drug addiction. However, try to take away someone's coffee abruptly and chances are they will experience withdrawal symptoms (2). The body develops a dependence on caffeine which is very obvious; stop drinking coffee for a day after being a regular drinker and get a headache, then drink coffee and it goes away. Some call this an addiction, coining terms such as "caffeinisme" and "caffeine withdrawal syndrome" (4), and classify caffeine as a mind-altering drug (3) (5) (6) (7). Many others protect caffeine, saying it does not compare to a true drug addiction and some even claim it has benefits-that it not only increases alertness but has other healthful properties (2) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13). It is very difficult to find an objective article on the effects of caffeine, for while the information is often corroborated by other reliable sources, one page will present all negative studies and side effects of the drug, and others only the positive. Reading a single article may convince you of one perspective, for there is a vast amount of information supporting both sides. Most agree that drinking caffinated beverages forms dependence, but those defending caffeine dismiss this as trivial while others see it as a very unhealthy cancer on society. The reality is somewhere in between. Caffeine is addictive but it is certainly not a strong physical addiction, for it is relatively easy to stop taking caffeine. The true addiction is psychological and is the most widespread addiction on earth.
The fact that caffeine is a drug cannot be denied. It effects the entire body in many ways, many involving chemical interactions in the central nervous system. One question is whether caffeine is even bad for you, if there is any reason to worry that one might be taking too much. The answer is that while providing many short-term benfits, caffeine has many short and long-term negative effects, which are and must be taken into consideration when deciding whether calling a craving for caffeine an addiction is justifiable.