Mental disorders are something that cannot be ignored due to a couple of factors, including their serious symptoms and prevalence in the USA these days. Millions of people in the US are affected by psychiatric disorders and mental illnesses, both children and adults.
But do you know that another widespread phenomenon in the USA is coffee drinking? And that caffeine is actually considered a psychoactive drug since it can influence our psychiatric condition?
With that being said, it is important to understand the correlation between coffee consumption and the symptoms of different mental health disorders. Coffee might not be safe for everyone and, at the same time, may help some patients with some of their symptoms.
So, let’s take a closer look at this delicious beverage. We will explore how it is linked to the most common psychiatric disorders in the USA and how it affects different symptoms.
Is There a Link Between Caffeine and Emotional and Mental Health?
Before we start, let’s clarify one thing. People often say that coffee affects their mood and their emotions. But they don’t always distinguish one from the other. A mood is an affective state, typically quite long-lasting. An emotion, on the other hand, is much shorter in duration; it’s a reaction to the outside stimuli expressed in a body’s response to them (e.g., blushing, shaky hands, etc.)
Now, despite mood and emotion being two different notions, they are influenced by caffeine in a similar way. Because caffeine can increase our brain’s alertness, cognitive function, and attention, it is able to alter both our mood and emotions.
And because this substance can so easily “manipulate” our mental state, it may also have a direct influence on our mental health issues. It can make us more anxious, nervous, or stressed, which obviously aren’t the most favorable mental states for some disorders. At the same time, coffee may boost the production of dopamine and serotonin, the hormones that reduce anxiety and stress levels.
So, what’s important here is to understand that each case (and each mental health disorder) is different. And when combined with regular caffeine intake, each separate condition will have different consequences. That’s why it’s crucial to understand how coffee can affect certain disorders, such as anxiety, depression, autism, and other widespread mental health issues. And that’s exactly what we are going to learn in this guide today.
How Caffeine Affects Your Body
When talking about mental health, we cannot omit the aspect of physical health. The way our body feels can actually influence our mind and emotional health. That’s why we’re often told about the benefits of exercising!
Now, it is known that coffee can influence our mood and emotional state. But that’s not it:
Caffeine has an effect on our bodies too. It’s not a secret that many people cannot start their day without coffee and feel the physical need to get their caffeine fix in order to wake up “fully”.
Research suggests that our diet can influence our brain, its neurological functions, and mental health a lot. And because caffeine is such a powerful stimulant widely used as part of many people’s diet, it is being actively studied these days.
- Caffeine is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system, meaning it is able to make the brain alert. This, consequently, makes us feel less tired and more awake.
- Caffeine blocks the adenosine molecules in the brain (which helps us feel less tired) and promotes the dopamine production (which makes us more energetic and helps boost our mood).
- Some studies link regular coffee consumption to the decreasing risks of developing such diseases as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
- Caffeine can help with migraines or tension headaches. How? By reducing the swelling in the brain’s blood vessels (which cause migraines in the first place).
- Coffee temporarily suppresses appetite, which is quite helpful during the weight loss process.
- It increases alertness and attention, which may help us deal with our chores, work tasks, studies, etc.
- Caffeine improves physical performance too. It is able to increase endurance. However, it is worth knowing that such an effect is always temporary and short-term.
- Coffee is known to decrease the risk of developing certain types of cancer, including throat, mouth, skin, prostate, breast, and endometrial.
- Digestive problems. Caffeine has the ability to increase the amount of acid in your stomach. This, consequently, may cause an upset stomach or heartburn.
- Caffeine can cause your blood pressure to go up (temporarily). Even though this doesn’t last, it may be a problem for those who naturally have a bit higher pressure than normal. This happens because caffeine stimulates the release of adrenaline. Additionally, it blocks the hormones that naturally make your arteries widen.
- If you have irregular heart rhythms, too much coffee can make your heart work harder and even cause tachycardia.
- Because caffeine has the ability to interfere with the way your body absorbs calcium, too much coffee can contribute to osteoporosis (bone thinning).
- Since caffeine is a stimulant, it can cause disrupted (or delayed) sleep cycles and even insomnia (when consumed regularly and in large quantities).
How Much Coffee Is Too Much?Now that you know what effects caffeine may have on both your body and mental state, you may be wondering how to figure out whether you are consuming too much of it. Here’s what you should know: There isn’t one certain answer to this question simply because we (and our bodies) are different. However, the general numbers may help you figure out how much coffee you should or shouldn’t drink. Now, it is known that taking up to 400-450 milligrams of caffeine is safe for the majority of adults. That’s the amount of caffeine of 4 brewed coffee cups (or 4 small espresso shots), or, for example, 10 cans of cola (since coffee isn’t the only source of caffeine).
For healthy people, drinking coffee can actually lower the risks of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, and various cognitive disorders.
- coffee (including instant and even decaf, which does contain some caffeine);
- tea (both loose leaf and bag);
- matcha (green tea);
- cocoa (which is found in hot chocolate beverages, chocolate bars and candy, chocolate ice-cream, etc.);
- energy drinks;
- cola and some other soft drinks (Mountain Dew, for example);
- pain relievers and weight loss pills;
- protein bars (not all of them, but some use caffeine to boost your energy levels);
- guarana berries (not that widespread, but maybe you love unusual berries).
Coffee Drinking Guide for People with Mental Health DisordersYou probably already know that mental health issues reveal themselves in a wide spectrum of symptoms in different people. Some patients go through life bearing those symptoms a bit easier, others struggle every day. And because mental issues are so different, when combined with coffee drinking, they show different results too. Let’s try to understand how coffee may influence the most prevalent mental disorders by taking a closer look at each of them.
DepressionYes, sometimes when we are feeling down, we can say “Oh, I’ve been feeling really depressed lately.” However, we shouldn’t confuse feeling down with clinical depression. Clinical depression reveals itself in a prolonged feeling of sadness and low mood overall. It lasts for a long time and can affect a patient’s everyday life. There are different extents to depression, starting from the mildest symptoms (when you just feel sad all the time) to more severe cases (which can even lead to suicide attempts). Some researchers believe that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, while other scientists note that this is an oversimplification. Depression can be caused by numerous factors and series of events, not just one single factor. Another thing that makes this health condition so dangerous is its prevalence and versatility. While depression affects nearly 1 in 5 adults in America, there are also different types and subcategories of it.
- prolonged sadness, helplessness, anxiety, or worry;
- sleep issues (insomnia);
- low self-esteem;
- feeling guilt-ridden, tearful, or irritable;
- inability to enjoy any activities or life overall;
- low (or no) motivation;
- no interest in activities and your surroundings;
- feeling numb or empty;
- difficulty making decisions or concentrating;
- suicidal thoughts (or thoughts about hurting and harming yourself);
- desire to avoid social contacts;
- neglection of interests and hobbies;
- lack of energy;
- weight and appetite changes;
- loss of libido;
- feeling fatigue and moving or talking slower than usual.
- Caffeine boosts the production of dopamine and serotonin. Low levels of these neurotransmitters can be the causes of depression, so when their production is increased (thanks to coffee), this can actually make the depression symptoms milder.
- Because caffeine is a stimulant, it tends to make people more alert, energized, and even motivated. This can come in handy if one of your depression symptoms is fatigue and low energy levels.
- Because coffee has anti-inflammatory properties (thanks to its chemical compounds and acids), it can reduce the brain inflammation, which is often linked to depression.
Healthy amounts of caffeine can help with concentration, attention, mood, and even the feeling of contentment.
- If your depression is accompanied by anxiety (which is a common case), avoid drinking coffee or other beverages that have caffeine in them (or at least reduce the amount to the minimum). You see, caffeine can also promote the secretion of adrenalin, which increases our stress levels and can enhance the anxiety symptoms.
- If you experience sleep issues, minimize the intake of caffeine on a daily basis and avoid drinking coffee 4-6 hours prior to going to bed.
- If you are taking antidepressants or other medication, it is important to talk to your doctor about their compatibility with coffee. Some antidepressants contain caffeine already, so combining them with some extra cups of coffee might not be a good idea.
- And, of course, try to stick to the healthy amount of caffeine (up to 400 mg a day).
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)Commonly known as OCD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety condition that involves having unwanted, uncontrollable thoughts and compulsive, repetitive behaviors. Such a condition can interfere greatly with one’s day-to-day life. The thing is, those thoughts and compulsive behaviors are usually irrational, but a person with this disorder simply cannot fight them (no matter how illogical they are). There is no certain cause of OCD. Scientists agree that genetic factors, environment, and numerous other aspects can trigger this condition. However, it is known that around 2-3% of the world’s population is affected by OCD (and that’s millions of people). Now, the symptoms of OCD usually involve a general cycle of behavior. It starts with an obsessive thought, then moves to anxiety, then to compulsive behavior, then ends in temporary relief, and repeats itself. The general signs vary and depend on each individual case but often include the following symptoms:
- obsessive desire to have things in a certain order or symmetry;
- fear of dirt and germs;
- intrusive and unwanted violent or sexual thoughts;
- extreme superstitions;
- being overly focused on specific moral or religious ideas;
- fear of losing control and hurting yourself or other people;
- excessive fear of losing certain things you might need;
- repeatedly checking on someone to make sure they are safe;
- excessive double-checking (for instance, locks, switches, etc.);
- constant washing and cleaning;
- counting, repeating certain words, tapping, and doing other repetitive (often illogical) things to reduce the feeling of anxiety;
- accumulating things in large amounts, even junk.
- If you are sensitive to caffeine, you should avoid it since it may actually enhance your anxiety.
- If you are not sensitive to caffeine, control its intake and try to stay within the healthy limits (up to 400 mg a day).
- If you are used to drinking coffee regularly and then got diagnosed with OCD, reduce the caffeine intake gradually. Stopping to drink coffee abruptly can actually cause certain coffee withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches and inability to concentrate.
Generally, anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness, worry, or fear. However, when it comes to anxiety disorder, there are different types and subcategories. For instance, panic disorder, social anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.
When talking about anxiety, people usually refer to generalized anxiety disorder. This condition is widespread across the nation and can affect both children and adults.
- constantly feeling restless, irritated, or on edge;
- trouble concentrating;
- irregular heartbeat, muscle tension, trembling;
- tiredness, dizziness;
- excessive sweating;
- headaches, shortness of breath;
- sleep problems (particularly insomnia and waking up tired);
- feeling cold without a reason;
- hot flashes;
Autism Spectrum DisorderAutism is a disorder affecting a person’s social skills and behavior. Autism Spectrum Disorder is actually a general term for different autism subcategories. All of them are usually diagnosed in early childhood, which makes autism a developmental disorder. Sadly, this is a widespread issue across America, as it occurs in 1 in 59 births. Now, the symptoms of autism vary greatly (hence the word “spectrum” in the name). The most common ones include:
- delayed speech development;
- monotonous, flat, or weird tone of voice;
- habit to repeat certain words frequently;
- not responding to one’s name;
- having troubles communicating with other people, keeping up the conversation, keeping eye contact, etc.;
- excessive need to have certain routines and rituals (and feeling sad or even angry when the routine changes);
- having repetitive movements (like rocking back and forth, etc.);
- being overly sensitive to the outside stimuli, for instance, sound or light;
- being unable to understand sarcasm, jokes, or figures of speech and taking them too seriously;
- showing little interest in interacting with people.
Because caffeine is able to cause psychoactive effects, it is actually considered a psychoactive drug. Caffeine addiction is a real thing too. However, we do not perceive it as a drug. Maybe because it is a legal substance. Or maybe because it’s everywhere around us and is a component of the most harmless (at first glance) things: coffee, tea, chocolate, hot cocoa, etc.
SchizophreniaSchizophrenia is a mental condition that changes the way people perceive and interpret reality. This condition is very serious and shows itself to different extents. It may involve disordered thinking, irrational behavior, and even delusions and hallucinations. This disorder makes it difficult for people to think clearly, manage their feelings and emotions, and function normally. Schizophrenia isn’t as prevalent as, let’s say, depression, but it’s still a very serious issue occurring nationwide. It is diagnosed in approximately 0.25%-0.60% of Americans. While hallucinations and delusions are the most common for schizophrenia, they are accompanied by some other symptoms:
- lack of concentration;
- sleep issues, including insomnia and shifted circadian rhythms;
- loss of motivation and social withdrawal;
- confused thoughts;
- lack of emotional expression;
- neglecting one’s hygiene.
- If you are sensitive to coffee and feel like it makes you more anxious (or increases your heart rate, or makes your hands shake), it’s better to stay away from this beverage.
- Try to stay within the healthy limits (up to 4 cups a day).
- If you are already tolerant to high amounts of coffee, it’s still a better idea to decrease the consumption gradually and maybe sometimes substitute this beverage with tea.
- If you are taking antidepressants or any other prescription drugs, ask your doctor if it’s okay for you to combine those with caffeine.
- If you are suffering from insomnia or any other sleep issues, it’s best to give up drinking coffee (or at least drink it at the beginning of the day only).
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity DisorderADHD is mostly found in kids that are too active or find it hard to focus their attention on something. Yet, some adults deal with this condition too. In fact, around 4-5% of the American adult population is diagnosed with this condition. In some cases, this condition doesn’t reveal itself in the childhood and the symptoms start to appear when a person grows up.
- impulsive behavior;
- difficulties concentrating and focusing on tasks;
- poor time management and planning;
- frequent mood changes;
- difficulty coping with stress;
- extreme activity, restlessness;
- trouble multitasking;
- hot temper;
- difficulty following directions or remembering information;
- depression or anxiety.
Having too much coffee regularly can be associated with some very unpleasant symptoms. For instance, high caffeine doses can cause anxiety, increased blood pressure (temporarily), headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, restlessness, etc. Each of these symptoms puts your body into a “fight or flight” state, which is also a common sign of many health conditions. Thus, drinking coffee can make things worse.
However, when we are talking about the excessive coffee consumption, the results aren’t that satisfying. Too much coffee (5 cups and more) can cause insomnia, headaches, irritability, all of which may influence (and aggravate) the ADHD symptoms in adults.
So, the solution is quite obvious here:
If you have ADHD, try to stay within the limits. Coffee is your friend as long as you stick to healthy amounts of it.
Bipolar DisorderBipolar disorder used to be called manic depression because of the mood swings (manias and depressions) it involves. This condition affects one’s mood and makes a person experience severe swings from one extreme to another. Bipolar disorder is diagnosed in almost 3% of adults in the US. It has an episodic character, which means the symptoms will depend on the current mood you’re experiencing. Mania symptoms include talking very fast, feeling extremely happy and excited, being full of energy, feeling self-important, not eating, not feeling like sleeping, etc. However, these factors change and turn into depression, which involves such symptoms as feeling sad and hopeless, low energy, inability to concentrate, insomnia, self-doubt, loss of interest, feeling pessimistic, being delusional, etc. Now, when it comes to caffeine, people with bipolar disorder should be very careful. You see, as caffeine is a stimulant, it may actually induce your manias and make you more anxious and jittery. For many people, it is hard to go back to their calm self even after one cup of coffee. It may take weeks. Additionally, caffeine can affect your sleep, and sleep deprivation is one of the strongest triggers to cause mood swings and bipolar manias.
Drinking coffee is also linked to lower risks of developing certain types of cancer, including prostate, liver, skin, and endometrial cancer.
- https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/depression/#.W_U6hOgzZPY – Mental health information and support.
- https://medlineplus.gov/obsessivecompulsivedisorder.html – More about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: diagnosis, treatments, specifics, etc. (also in Spanish).
- https://anxiety.jeanhailes.org.au/ – Anxiety help for women at different life stages.
- http://www.moodjuice.scot.nhs.uk/anxiety.asp – Anxiety self-help guide.
- https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-Fact-Sheet – Autism Spectrum Disorder information guide: signs, causes, related disorders, symptoms, life with autism, etc.
- https://sardaa.org/ – Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America.
- https://add.org/adhd-facts/ – ADHD information sheet by the Attention Deficit Disorder Association.
- https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/clinical-resources/bipolar-disorder – Bipolar Disorder informational guide and self-test.
- https://curiosity.com/topics/caffeine-withdrawal-is-realand-now-its-technically-a-mental-disorder-curiosity/ – Caffeine withdrawal symptoms and signs.
- https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/jcr.2016.0023 – Study by Brian J. Distelberg, Andrea Staack, K’dee D. Elsen, and Joan Sabaté on the effects of caffeine on sleep quality, mood, and the overall quality of life (from the perspective of health-related issues).
My name is Yurii Brown. I am a passionate coffee geek and, concurrently, a certified coffee specialist.
I’ve been learning about coffee for a long time, testing various devices and practicing in home coffee brewing. I like to share my experience and insights with fellow coffee lovers so that my readers could enjoy the real taste of quality-brewed beverages.