“I don’t make any friends talking about this because everybody loves the caffeine. I get it, I get it, but I think that caffeine is an anxiogenic substance. That’s fancy medical speak for it’s like a drug that causes anxiety,” said holistic psychologist Ellen Vora, MD, a panelist at last week’s Well+Good TALKS: Generation Anxiety event at The Assemblage NoMad in New York City.
Dr. Vora said ditching coffee (and ultimately, all caffeine) is “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to dialing back your anxiety. And she’s not alone: Keri Glassman MS, RDN, says that caffeine is a stimulant to your nervous system. “It triggers your fight-or-flight response and this is known to make anxiety go up. It can also make you feel flat out moody and nervous,” she says.
While more research still needs to be conducted on the relationship between caffeine and anxiety, two separate studies have reported finding higher mean anxiety scores in participants “dependent” on caffeine than their non-dependent counterparts.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that drinking coffee automatically will give you anxiety. “Some people are able to tolerate caffeine any time of day with limited negative side effects or disruption to sleep hygiene,” says Becki Holmes, MS, RDN, LDN, and founder of Foodwit. However other people, like those who don’t drink caffeine regularly or who have pre-existing anxiety conditions, are more likely to experience increased anxiety symptoms from their morning joe. If you have a clinical anxiety disorder, Holmes recommends working with your doctor to suss out how caffeine may be affecting your “general well-being,” as part of a larger treatment plan.
“Nothing should happen cold turkey with caffeine because caffeine withdrawal is very real. You get headaches; you hate everybody.” -Ellen Vora, MD
All three experts agree that it can’t hurt to kick that morning cup of joe if you’re someone who deals with anxiety. But Holmes caveats that if you and your doc decide that caffeine breakup is the best course of action, remember that the stimulant appears in way more than just coffee beans. It’s also a mainstay in chocolate, some teas, vitamins, and even some headache medications. So until you settle into your new routine, you’ll have to be extra choosy about what ingredients deserve a spot on your plate (and in your medicine cabinet).
But first, (you’ll have to quit) coffee. (See what I did there?)
“Nothing should happen cold turkey with caffeine because caffeine withdrawal is very real. You get headaches; you hate everybody.” Dr. Vora said. Instead, think slow and steady: “If it’s coffee, turn it into half [caf] and half [decaf], then turn into black tea, and eventually green tea, and eventually nothing,” she recommends. If you’re more of a coffee-to-go kinda gal, Holmes says to swap out your venti Starbs for a grande, then a grande for a tall. And so on.
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