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  • Writer's pictureThe Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review

Caffeine Dependence: When Does it Get Harmful?

Anirudh Uppili Mukundan, West Windsor Plainsboro High School South, Plainsboro, New Jersey, United States

Article Summary  

Caffeine is a widely consumed drug worldwide, no matter which country a person visits. Even though it is a stimulant, it is relatively harmless because it is way less potent compared to other dangerous drugs. However, its use could pose side effects when abused. Even though only a small percentage of the population ends up addicted to it, it could reduce the quality of life drastically when addicted to it.  


Ever since caffeine was isolated from the coffee bean by Ferdinand Runge in 1819, it has been a crucial part of many drinks in the world. Approximately 90% of the world consumes caffeine daily, and it is the world's most consumed psychostimulant (Evans, 2022; Richards, 2022; Battisti, 2022). Caffeine can be found in many drinks but is mainly consumed in coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks.  


Workings of Caffeine 

Caffeine belongs to the class of drugs that are called central nervous system stimulants; they are responsible for boosting concentration and enhancing alertness. As a stimulant, caffeine is responsible for dopamine levels in the brain. After having a cup of coffee, for example, caffeine finds its way into your bloodstream. It then penetrates the barrier between blood and the brain.  

Naturally, the brain contains a compound called adenosine. When it binds to its adenosine receptors, it produces a feeling of tiredness in your body. Since caffeine is extremely similar to adenosine in structure, it can bind to those adenosine receptors and block them. This way, it makes you alert and awake for longer, as the adenosine is not able to bind to its receptor. Along with blocking the receptors, it releases dopamine, which enables feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.  

Adrenaline is also released when the brain has a higher amount of adenosine, so since the caffeine is blocking the receptors and keeping the levels of adenosine high, adrenaline is also released substantially more than usual. This adrenaline makes your heartbeat faster and allows your lungs to breathe more efficiently, keeping you on your toes.  

However, like many other drugs, tolerance is another factor that needs to be taken into consideration. As you start intaking caffeine, more adenosine receptors are made in your brain to combat the effects of caffeine. After a while, the same amount of caffeine you used to take will not provide the same “kick” as before, and you would need a higher dose to block off more adenosine receptors. This can lead some people to intake too much caffeine, kicking off unwanted side effects.  


Side effects  

Research shows that up to 400mg of caffeine is safe for most adults (The amount varies for every person). This is roughly the amount of caffeine in 4 cups of coffee and around 10 sodas. (different types of sodas have different amounts of caffeine. Check the nutrition labels to see how much caffeine a soda contains). After surpassing this amount, a person may start to experience side effects. Some side effects include sleeplessness, irritability, headaches and migraines, quickened heartbeat, nausea, and muscle tremors.  


DSM-5 criteria 

Overuse of caffeine is not regarded as a Substance Use Disorder (SUD) by the DSM-5, as it does not stimulate the brain as much as other more potent drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine. However, the DSM-5 does recognize it as a condition for future study.  

DSM-5 outlines the criteria for problematic caffeine consumption as three of these criteria: 

  • Inability to cut down on caffeine use 

  • Using Caffeine while knowing it is causing psychological or physical problems 

  • Experiencing withdrawal syndrome, and using caffeine to avoid withdrawal syndrome 

  • Using larger doses 

  • Being unable to fulfill jobs (school, work, home, etc.) in order of caffeine 

  • Using caffeine even when it causes social problems 

  • Experiencing Tolerance 

  • Spending too much time obtaining Caffeine 

  • Craving the use of caffeine 


Even though 90% of the world consumes caffeine, only about 8% end up meeting the criteria for problematic caffeine consumption (United Brain Association, 2023). This is why caffeine isn’t as addictive as many of the other potent and dangerous drugs.  


Withdrawal and Prevention 

Whenever someone tries to quit caffeine use, they will experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms range from headache, irritability, fatigue, depressed mood, low energy, and difficulty concentrating. However, once a person stops using caffeine, the brain will gradually reduce the number of adenosine receptors, which will eliminate the withdrawal symptoms after about a week. Gradually decreasing caffeine use is also so much easier to carry out than quitting “cold turkey”. Even if you end up quitting “cold turkey”, the withdrawal symptoms will naturally cease to exist after a short while. Excessive caffeine use is so much easier to fix than most Substance Use Disorders, as the withdrawal symptoms are of less intensity.  



Even though most of the world uses caffeine, its use has stayed relatively safe due to moderation. However, caffeine is a drug that will harm a person when abused, so it is always important to use it wisely for the extra “kick” that one needs in their life.  


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