Is your morning cup of joe a drug? Technically, yes! Caffeine is the most widely-used psychoactive drug in the world. It’s also highly addictive — once you start using it, it’s hard to stop. Because of this, it’s important to look at how caffeine can impact your recovery from an addiction.

Detoxification is a necessary stage in which your body learns to adjust to life without substances. It can be challenging, both physically and emotionally, and you may find yourself drawn to other behaviors to cope. Many addicts turn to caffeine as an alternative substance in their recovery process, but because of its addictive qualities, caffeine can be a risky option. The body quickly becomes dependent on lattes and sodas to get through the day. While not an illicit drug, caffeine does take a toll on the body. Caffeine can impact the cardiovascular system and central nervous system, causing rapid heartbeat, irritability, increased blood pressure, confusion, and muscle aches.

Caffeine has some similarities to prescription stimulant medications like those used to treat ADHD. Both work by increasing the level of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, the chemicals responsible for positive feelings and mental focus. In addition to impacting the brain and helping you to feel more alert, caffeine affects the rest of your body. Its broad systemic activity leads to the “jitters,” or that shakiness you get after downing too much coffee. In excess amounts, it also causes anxiety, heart palpitations, sleep disorders, and restlessness – which is not what you need during a time of recovery!

Be aware that you’re not avoiding addiction by replacing drugs and alcohol with caffeine. If you truly want to gain control over your addiction, you might want to consider removing caffeine from the mix as well. There are many benefits to nixing caffeine.

For starters, too much caffeine can increase stress and anxiety. By messing with your brain chemistry, caffeine can induce tiredness, difficulty concentrating, low mood, and difficulty falling asleep. It also increases levels of adrenalin, a stress hormone, which can trigger the fight-or-flight response in your body. Too much stress and you lose the ability to make clear decisions, control impulses, or access newly learned skills, which make you more susceptible to slips in judgement. Former drug users who drink too much caffeine are more likely to relapse than those that don’t.

Caffeine also causes hypoglycemia, which is unstable sugar levels that make it hard to control hunger and fight cravings. Hypoglycemia can also cause fatigue, depression, anxiety, and irritability.

Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it wakes up your brain and makes it harder to fall asleep. Too much can cause a disruption in sleep patterns, altering the quality and duration of sleep or even inducing insomnia. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you are more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and making poor choices. It’s important for your recovery to get adequate sleep each night as your body needs rest to heal!

Caffeine changes your brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and acetylcholine get activated in ways similar to when you were using drugs. Because caffeine doesn’t provide the same “high” that illicit drugs do, you’ll be left wanting, which means you may open the door to more intense cravings for drugs that will derail your recovery. If you’ve been diagnosed with anxiety or depression separate from your addiction, it may make sense to quit caffeine altogether, as it has been proven to exacerbate symptoms.

Caffeine reduces the ability of your body to absorb important vitamins. The absorption of iron, vitamin D, potassium, zinc, and calcium are inhibited by too much caffeine, and this lack of basic nutrients can trigger hunger, which in turn produces stress hormones and drug cravings.

If you decide to quit caffeine, be prepared for symptoms of withdrawal. While not as intense as detoxification from illicit drugs, caffeine withdrawal may cause headaches, nausea, depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, or irritability. Here are some tips to help you quit for good!

  • To wean yourself off of caffeine, try replacing your highly-caffeinated drinks with less-powerful ones. Try grinding your own coffee from whole beans, and use 50% caffeinated beans and 50% decaffeinated beans. Same great taste, less caffeine! Or, try tea instead of coffee!
  • If visiting the coffee shop was part of your routine that you looked forward to, keep it alive! Just change what you order. Or if drinking out of your favorite mug brought you joy, make adjustments to what you drink. See if your barista can concoct a half-caf cup of coffee for you, or try diluting your beverage with water.
  • Get active. Exercise boosts your body’s production of feel-good chemicals that can help you withstand withdrawals. You may find that you feel good enough from physical activity that you don’t need caffeine in the first place!
  • Eat right. Caffeine withdrawal can be hard and it’s important to continue to take care of your body. Get plenty of rest, too.

Dependency on caffeine can open the door to new problems in your recovery. Consider nixing it from your diet and see how the quality of your mental and physical health improves. It could be the step needed to keep you on track with your sobriety!

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