The Things I Wish I Knew About Caffeine

I am a recovering Diet Coke addict – and as a mental health advocate I don’t use terms like “addict” lightly – I really was addicted. It would be the first thing I’d drink upon waking, I’d drink several (4-5 cans) throughout the day, and often it would be the last thing I’d drink before going to sleep. It was like this for about 6 years – it was my branded comfort blanket and I honestly wasn’t comfortable unless I knew I had one on me! I’ve been reintroducing myself to Diet Coke recently, because I do genuinely enjoy it… but with less of an addict’s stance.

ANYWAY, in Diet Coke’s absence, I discovered coffee. Much more potent in its caffeine content, and much more acceptable amongst my colleagues. I’ve noticed recently though that more than 1 cups in one day and my anxiety and heart rate is unmanageable in the afternoon. My two most recent panic attacks (within the last fortnight) have followed a day filled with more than one cup of coffee. Now, arguably, my mental health may have been at a disadvantage due to lack of sleep (hence the increase in coffee) or arguably (quite likely) the panic attacks have been heavily influenced by the change in heart rate I’ve experienced after drinking the liquid energy that I have grown to love so much.

This isn’t anything new. Caffeine has been linked to the aggravation and maintenance of anxiety disorders, and the initiation of panic or anxiety attacks in those who are already predisposed to experiencing attacks. Caffeine usage surpassing 200 mg has been shown to increase the likelihood for anxiety and panic attacks, and with many cups of coffee averaging about 50mg, this number isn’t exactly hard to surpass – especially with those Venti-sized beauties. It’s been proven that excessive amounts of caffeine can result in symptoms from general anxiety to obsessive-compulsive and phobic symptoms. Quite worrying when you consider it.

In order to understand what I have been doing to my poor (already struggling) brain cells, I decided to look into caffeine and its effects a little further.

Caffeine increases our stress hormones

Whilst sometimes this can be perceived and experienced as “increased alertness”, often  cortisol and epinephrine (the stress hormones) are increased so much  that we start experiencing physical stress symptoms – such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. It has been shown on numerous occasions that those who are depressed or anxious are much more in tune with the state of their body and it’s workings and as such will be very aware and receptive of the changes being made.

Caffeine inhibits GABA

Yeah, sure, but what does this mean? Well, GABA is the neurotransmitter that slows down brain activity (when required). Of course, we would want to inhibit this when we’re seeking an anti-fatigue potion such as coffee… but to inhibit something that puts the brakes on when necessary actually means we are inhibiting our ability to slow our thoughts down to a reasonable level. Anyone who has experienced anxiety and panic attacks will understand how necessary it is to be able to slow down our waves of thought.

Caffeine contributes to insomnia

Caffeine can stay in our system up to 6 hours after consumption, and largely disrupts our sleep during stage 3 and 4 (our most restorative sleep). It is not news to anyone that getting adequate sleep is essential for mental wellbeing. For those who already feel restless and anxious as the evening draws to a close, caffeine will only serve to increase the severity of the problem.

Caffeine may cause reactive hypoglycemia.

Hypoglycemia occurs when blood sugar drops too low. Having low blood sugar attack can make a person feel jittery, sweaty, irritable and confused, with a rapid heart rate, very much like an anxiety attack.

Whilst all of the above facts scare me senseless (hey, I’m an anxious gal, leave me be), I’m not saying that it’s going to stop me drinking my beloved coffee or Diet Coke with immediate effect. What discovering this has highlighted, however, is that I really must be wary of keeping consumption to a minimum and particularly to not have any in the afternoon. Not rocket science really, but it’s useful to be reminded. Make sure you keep an eye on your own consumption and if you experience any of the above symptoms perhaps you could look at reducing your intake by 1 cup a day.

I’ll be interested to hear other people’s experiences with caffeine in the comments!

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