The Pros and Cons of Caffeine in Addiction Recovery
One stereotype about addiction that may actually have some truth to it is that people in recovery smoke and drink a lot of coffee. A study of nearly 300 AA members in Nashville found that nearly 57 percent smoked cigarettes, compared to just 14 percent of Americans overall, and nearly 89 percent drank coffee, compared to about 64 percent of Americans overall.
Smoking is clearly bad for you and your recovery, as discussed in another post, but what about coffee? As you might expect, the picture with coffee, and caffeine in general, is more complicated.
The Source Is Important
First, it makes a huge difference whether you’re getting caffeine from coffee or tea or from energy drinks. Health experts are pretty much unanimous that energy drinks should be avoided. Part of the problem is that you never quite know what you’re getting. Some energy drinks have extravagant levels of caffeine. Others contain exotic ingredients, the effects of which are poorly understood, especially in combination with other ingredients.
Perhaps most importantly, energy drinks tend to have a lot of sugar. The average energy drink has about 23 grams of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 36 grams of sugar per day total for men and no more than 25 grams of sugar per day for women. The energy drink with the most sugar is Rockstar Xdurance, with a stunning 69 grams.
Excess sugar consumption is bad for your health in general and has been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, chronic inflammation, and fatty liver disease. For people recovering from substance use disorders, these outcomes are especially bad. Someone recovering from alcohol use disorder, for example, is already at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease.
Sugar can take a toll on your mental health as well, putting you at greater risk for relapse. Several studies have found that high-sugar diets and obesity increase your risk of depression. Inflammation has also recently been implicated in some forms of depression. In short, if you’re recovering from addiction and drinking energy drinks, you would be far better off consuming an equal amount of caffeine in the form of coffee.
There Appear to Be Some Mild Health Benefits
As for whether you should drink coffee or tea, it’s a mixed bag and it largely depends on your situation. There do appear to be some mild health benefits associated with coffee and tea. The case for tea is pretty straightforward. It’s loaded with antioxidants and numerous studies have shown that heavy tea drinkers have a slightly lower risk of various cancers. The only real downside is burning your mouth when drinking it too hot.
Coffee is a bit harder to pin down since contradictory studies emerge every few years. For example, some older studies found a slight increase in bladder and pancreatic cancer risk but those have been largely discredited. It does appear that coffee raises your blood pressure and that unfiltered coffee can raise your cholesterol.
However, a number of studies have identified a number of health benefits from moderate--that is, about four cups a day or less--coffee consumption. These include a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, liver cancer, liver cirrhosis, and gout--all risks that are heightened by excessive alcohol consumption. These positive effects aren’t huge, but if you’re already drinking a few cups of coffee a day, they’re a nice bonus.
Caffeine Can Improve Your Mood
Caffeine can also have some positive effects on your mental health. Coffee’s effects on mental health have been pretty well documented and they include increased alertness--obviously--more energy, better cognitive function, and better mood, as well as fewer depressive symptoms and lower risk of suicide. These effects can give you an edge in dealing with the sluggishness and irritability common early in recovery.
Drinking coffee might be considered a form of self-medicating, but for most people, the negative effects of moderate coffee consumption will be preferable to those of even well-tolerated SSRIs. The only caveat is that you shouldn’t use caffeine as a substitute for therapy for a mental health issue.
Caffeine Can Aggravate Anxiety
The biggest drawback for many people in recovery will be caffeine’s tendency to aggravate anxiety. Caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which feels the same as anxiety or even panic. If you’re not prone to anxiety, moderate consumption is probably fine but if you have issues with anxiety, even a little caffeine may make them worse. According to one study, nearly 18 percent of people with a substance use disorder had problems with anxiety in the past year. That means there’s a decent chance you should be trying to manage your anxiety levels, which might include cutting down on caffeine.
Caffeine Can Disturb Your Sleep
The other major concern about caffeine for people in recovery is its effect on sleep. Insomnia is a common withdrawal symptom and it may persist for weeks or months into recovery. If you’re guzzling coffee all day, that’s not likely to help you sleep any better. Caffeine has a half-life of about four to six hours, depending on your metabolism. That means that even if you quit drinking coffee at noon, there may still be quite a bit of caffeine in your system at bedtime. That may keep you up or it might just cause you to sleep less deeply.
Insomnia and chronic sleep deficit have been linked to a number of mental health issues. In the short term, these include poor concentration, poor working memory, and poor emotional regulation. In the long term, it significantly increases your risk of anxiety disorders and major depression. Since both of these are common factors in developing substance use disorder and relapsing to substance use, it’s important to get enough quality sleep, which may entail reducing or eliminating your caffeine intake.
Everyone’s situation in recovery is different. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine and some people metabolize it very quickly. Some people can’t sleep after drinking a cup of coffee in the afternoon, others can sleep fine if they have a cup right before bed. Some people have anxiety issues and some don’t. It’s important to be aware of your own vulnerabilities and act accordingly.
At The Foundry, we understand that recovery from addiction is highly individual, which is why we work with clients to come up with a treatment plan that best suits their specific needs. We also know that a strong recovery depends on making healthy lifestyle changes, including diet. We incorporate all of these things into our holistic addiction treatment. To learn more, call us at (844) 955-1066.
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