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I’m not a mind-reader, but I’m betting that the first thing you think about as soon as you wake up in the morning is that glorious first cup of coffee. You’re not alone: Approximately 64% of people in the U.S. consume at least one cup of coffee every day. And if you’re part of the Tired Parents Club, coffee may be a crucial player in how you get through those long days with littles.
“Coffee is such a huge part of our culture because it’s extremely effective and can be pleasurable and very useful, especially if you’re operating on no sleep,” Amanda Chantal Bacon, founder of Moon Juice, tells Motherly.
The downside of coffee
But coffee also has a dark side—and it’s not just that caffeine is addictive. When I was a practicing clinical nutritionist, I promised my clients I’d never ask them to break up with caffeine (I’m not that cruel!), but I did ask them to assess their relationship with the drug (because yes, it is a drug), with a particular focus on how and if it contributed to their anxiety levels. In many cases, reducing their coffee intake led to reduced perceived levels of stress and anxiety.
Not to be the bearer of bad news, but caffeine is directly linked to increasing anxiety levels in those who are prone to it. Here’s what you need to know—and how to curb your habit (if you’re open to that).
The link between caffeine and anxiety
“Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and the most commonly used psychoactive in the world. It increases cortisol and causes neural excitation,” shares Chantal Bacon. That stimulating effect is what gets us going in the morning.
But if you already have a predisposition to anxiety or a genetic mutation that makes you more susceptible to caffeine-induced anxiety, caffeine can act as an anxiogenic drug even in moderate amounts, which means it can cause a stress response and contribute to feelings of anxiety in the process.
Coffee and other caffeinated beverages essentially provide a false sense of anti-tiredness.
You’ve likely felt that jittery, shallow-breathing, heart-racing feeling when you’ve had too much. Turns out, the brain can’t always recognize when those physiological symptoms are a result of caffeine or a result of actual anxiety. “Psychologically, it’s difficult for your mind to recognize that this is not anxiety because it feels the same,” says Susan Bowling, PsyD, a psychologist at the Women’s Health Center at the Wooster Branch of Cleveland Clinic to Health. And it can get severe: Caffeine-induced anxiety disorder is a subcategory in the DSM-5.
To be clear: Coffee itself doesn’t cause anxiety—just contributes to it, especially in larger doses, and especially if you already have anxiety. One smallish cup (read: 8 to 10 ounces) a day likely won’t hurt you—and may even benefit you. “In small doses, caffeine can actually improve the mood, but in high doses it stimulates the release of epinephrine [aka adrenaline], which increases blood pressure and heart rate,” Chantal Bacon adds. But given the fact that anxiety is on the rise, that morning cuppa may be hindering more than helping.
How much caffeine is too much?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends no more than 400 mg per day, which could be anywhere from 2 to 4 cups of coffee, depending on the caffeine level of the beans and the brewing method. If you’re pregnant, aim to limit caffeine to no more than 200 mg per day—or avoid it altogether (the research on the effects of caffeine in pregnancy is mixed).
But what might be too much caffeine could differ from person to person. Having a genetic mutation could mean even just 150 mg of caffeine can contribute to anxiety levels. Personally, I can correlate increased feelings of anxiety to weeks when I’ve had more coffee than usual, but my partner can drink 4 cups per day with no negative effects.
“Coffee's energizing effects usually last 2 to 4 hours, then we crash.”
It’s also worth noting that there’s caffeine in many other beverages you might be imbibing throughout the day—black tea, green tea, iced tea, soda, energy drinks, hot chocolate and even decaf coffee all contain some caffeine that can count toward your daily total.
Caffeine doesn’t “create” energy
Caffeine is a stimulant drug that doesn’t actually manufacture energy for the body. Rather, the stimulant effect makes the body feel energized by altering key chemicals in the brain. “It blocks receptors in the brain from receiving signals to feel tired,” Chantal Bacon notes, in addition to triggering that cortisol rush that helps our blood pump faster. “Its energizing effects usually last 2 to 4 hours, then we crash.”
Coffee and other caffeinated beverages essentially provide a false sense of anti-tiredness. And the more we rely on that cortisol surge to power through our day, the more we become reliant on caffeine, which can have trickle down effects on our sleep hygiene, causing us to go to bed later and feel more groggy in the morning… and so the vicious cycle continues.
Granted, caffeine has been shown to increase mental and athletic performance. But, just like anything, too much of a good thing can be bad news. It’s when we start on that second or third cup that our body may not be able to regulate the stress response as effectively, and anxiety symptoms can ramp up.
How to wean yourself off coffee
Coffee is delicious, and research also shows that drinking coffee can both reduce depression and result in a feel-good dopamine response. But if it's causing your anxiety symptoms to tick up, it might be worth cutting back. “Prioritize other things that will help you to feel good and healthy, like sleep, diet and movement, then layer in supplements and take caffeine dosage down to a cup of tea in the morning only,” Chantal Bacon suggests.
She recommends supplemental magnesium in the evening hours and switching to yerba mate as a coffee substitute in the morning, which has a similarly roasted flavor but less caffeine per cup. Start reducing your intake on weekends only, then drop down to a cup every other day, and so on.
Do I still drink coffee? Definitely, but I'm super mindful of how much I'm drinking and try to limit myself to a cup just a couple times per week. I'll often opt for decaf if I'm really craving it. Otherwise, I've mostly turned to tea.
What to try if you want to break up with caffeine
Natural energy boosters like the ones included below actually help your body create energy through metabolism—rather than blocking brain receptors or causing your cortisol to rise.
Embrace the power nap
A short, 10- to 20-minute power nap has been shown to increase energy levels and alertness. The main takeaway? Don’t nap for more than 20 minutes so you don’t get looped into a deeper sleep cycle, making you wake up groggy.
Try a circadian rhythm reset
In some cases, prioritizing your circadian rhythm can help reset your energy levels. Aim to get bright sunlight in your eyes and on your face for at least 10 minutes first thing in the morning, then try to dim lights or switch to candles after dark. Too-bright light at night can confuse the body into thinking it’s still daytime. The Casper Glow Light is a portable mini smart lantern that slowly dims over 45 minutes to help you wind down.
Add in supplemental B12
Vitamin B12 is a key player in the energy metabolism process. B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, which means your body needs a consistent intake to keep cellular levels stable. I love Moon Juice’s Ting for a burst of energy around that 3pm slump. “We formulated Ting to optimize the body to support healthy energy levels without the crash,” Chantal Bacon says. Ting contains B12, a B complex (a combination of other B vitamins, which are necessary for B12 to function properly), plus ginseng, an adaptogen. Just know that ginseng is contraindicated if you’re currently breastfeeding, so it’s best to wait until you’ve weaned.
Sip on supplemental magnesium
Magnesium can be especially helpful in rebalancing your body’s stress response and also improving sleep quality—helping you get more restful sleep. A powdered formula is easy for your body to absorb. “I have a glass of Moon Juice's Magnesi-OM at night and that really helps,” says Chantal Bacon.
Look to mushrooms
Adaptogenic mushrooms like chaga, reishi and cordyceps use a tune-up/tune-down process to help your body better respond to stress and serve as a calming source of energy. Motherly’s science and research editor, Anne-Marie Gambelin, loves Renude’s Chagaccino. Add the powdered mushroom blend to your cup of coffee to help neutralize those jitters.
Amanda Chantal Bacon is the founder of Moon Juice.
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