The Link Between Caffeine and Anxiety

The Link Between Caffeine and Anxiety

Why So Caffeinated?

Have you ever perked up to the scent of freshly brewed coffee or just from the sight of someone sipping on a steaming hot mug? Caffeine doesn’t even have to be in your system to cause a stimulating effect. That’s because the association of a cup of joe with energy levels is so powerful it creates a feeling of anticipation. For over 90% of adults, the day begins with some sort of caffeinated beverage. It’s estimated that over 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed daily, making it the most commonly consumed beverage in the world (1).

What is it that has us all so drawn to the effects of stimulants such as coffee? Why is this a normal part of living for 90% of the world? Well, it may have something to do with sleep.

When people get enough sleep every night, they are able to restore their energy levels to the appropriate amount to tackle their day and problem-solve stressful occurrences without much adjustment to their routine. However, Americans get less than seven hours of sleep every night on average, with 50 to 70 million adults in the U.S. affected by a sleep disorder (2). Imagine how many car accidents on the freeway, peer conflicts at work or with friends, and other avoidable circumstances could be dodged by prioritizing better sleep. 

For optimal function and maintaining a calm focus, adults require anywhere between 8 and 10 hours of sleep. If not, the body will enter a deficit. That deficit prompts people to look for other ways to manage the requirements of their day. Coffee and other caffeinated beverages seem to be readily available tools. The issue is that these tools end up being abused, perpetuating low-quality sleep and prompting stimulant-seeking behavior, which we will identify as an anxious tendency (more on this later). 

Let’s explore and analyze the links between caffeine and anxiety, examining the underlying mechanisms that contribute to this relationship.


A Critical Look at Caffeine

 

The popularity of coffee is due primarily to the stimulating effects of caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system by blocking the receptors for adenosine, a chemical that creates a feeling of sleepiness. When adenosine is blocked by caffeine, neurotransmitters such as dopamine and adrenaline increase, leading to the feelings we typically associate with caffeine consumption. The effects of caffeine range from mild to moderate depending on many factors such as dose, individual sensitivity, hydration, and baseline stress levels:

  • Alertness and focus
  • Increased heart rate
  • Improved mood
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Feeling simultaneously wired and fatigued

While it’s true that low to moderate caffeine consumption can increase alertness, improve concentration, and enhance cognitive performance, caffeine can also lead to certain side effects that may influence mental well-being. Excessive consumption or sensitivity to caffeine can result in scattered thoughts or difficulty concentrating. This effect varies among individuals, and some people may experience a sense of mental restlessness or "scatterbrain" when consuming high doses of caffeine.

 

What is Anxiety? What are Common Symptoms?

 

Anxiety is a mental health concern that affects people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. It is reported that 18% of adults and nearly 25% of children report at least one symptom of an anxiety disorder (3). Anxiety refers to a group of symptoms such as fear, uneasiness, worry about the future, and repetitive thoughts, usually in reaction to stress. The physical symptoms fall along a spectrum and interestingly, include many of the same effects from caffeine consumption:


  • Increased muscle tension
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Feeling simultaneously wired and fatigued
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath

Anxious thoughts can be subtle, from mixing up the day of the week or rapidly reacting to someone’s question with an answer that may be untrue. These thoughts won’t affect how you feel in the moment, but when repeated over time, they can turn into habits that start to work against how you retain memory and interact with the world. Anxious thoughts can also be more extreme and have more direct consequences, such as showing up late for an important event due to hyper-fixation on appearance that can result in you feeling exhausted and unable to enjoy the event you’ve spent months looking forward to.

It’s important to note that anxiety exists on a spectrum. Everyone deals with anxiety symptoms on a daily basis, because everyone encounters triggers for stress. Anxiety on its own isn’t a bad thing; it helps us consider possibilities that can make us function better. However, there is such a thing as overdoing it, and that’s when anxiety gets extreme. Put this line of thinking in the mix with caffeine, and the results will be amplified.


The Health Implications of Anxiety

 

There are a wide variety of potential causes of anxiety, including genetic predisposition, environmental factors, history of trauma or abuse, and chronic stress. At the root, however, anxiety is an overstimulation of the sympathetic branch of the nervous system. 

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls automatic functions like respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure. It has two branches: the parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic (SNS). The PNS promotes relaxation and recovery, while the SNS triggers the "fight or flight" response. In individuals who experience anxiety, the PNS is usually underactive, while the SNS is overactive. While having SNS activity is a regular part of life, prolonged activation of the “flight or fight” response leads to the overall degeneration of health.

When your body is in the sympathetic state, it is in a state of breaking down, literally. Resources are being mobilized to help your body eliminate the perceived threat and regain a sense of homeostasis. Prolonged SNS activity can lead to declines in cardiovascular health, immune system function, metabolism, digestive health, and sleep disturbances. Chronic SNS activation is also linked to a decrease in anabolic signaling (the ability to build muscle) and increased muscle breakdown.

This imbalance of the nervous system due to anxiety makes it difficult to cope with the stressors of life, as the body is already being taxed beyond its means.


How Caffeine Promotes Anxiety

 

Interestingly, stimulants like caffeine work to give you the effects you desire by shifting the body into the sympathetic state. Caffeine does this by stimulating the release of chemicals such as adrenaline. This provides the characteristic “buzz,” focus, and energy that caffeine fans desire. 

The “caffeine jitters,” nervousness, and racing thoughts that can result from excessive SNS activity can exacerbate anxiety symptoms and lead to feelings of restlessness and agitation.

Caffeine also promotes anxiety symptoms by increasing levels of cortisol and interfering with cortisol regulation. Cortisol is a hormone that plays a crucial role in the body’s response to stress. When a person experiences anxiety, cortisol is released to help burn fuels (sugar, fat, proteins) to deal with the stressor. 

Research suggests that regular caffeine intake leads to abnormal cortisol rhythms throughout the day (4). Chronic elevation of cortisol is associated with the development of anxiety disorders, particularly in individuals who are already vulnerable to stress and anxiety.  

Caffeine consumption also blocks the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. GABA is responsible for promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety. By inhibiting GABA, caffeine may disrupt the balance between excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters, potentially leading to increased anxiety.

It should be apparent that an individual who already experiences symptoms of anxiety on a regular basis will be exacerbating their situation by consuming caffeine. Not only that, but any habitual users of caffeine are promoting anxiety symptoms and sympathetic nervous system dominance.

 

The Normalcy of Caffeine Abuse

 

It seems that the trend here is that poor sleep leads to caffeine consumptions, and chronic caffeine consumption leads to anxiety and poor sleep, which then exacerbates anxiety, and the cycle continues. 

While there may be some utility in consuming coffee or caffeinated beverages in periods of need, caffeine is still a drug. There is currently widespread abuse of this drug as the tendency to neglect sleep is common, and caffeine allows the user to continue this habit without immediate consequence. Unfortunately, the consequences will come to fruition, as the body can’t thrive or build health in the sympathetic state. 

As anxiety levels are on the rise, we must begin to look at the root cause of this situation. Perhaps as a society we should be questioning our priorities in regards to sleep, stress, and stimulant use. 


Functional Patterns Protocols for Anxiety

 

Incorporating the Functional Patterns training methodology can provide an effective long-term approach to decrease anxiety symptoms. Functional Patterns focuses on correcting movement patterns and optimizing biomechanics to improve overall physical and mental well-being. By addressing muscular imbalances, postural issues, and movement dysfunctions, Functional Patterns training can help reduce anxiety by promoting a more balanced and resilient body and mind. Here's how the principles of Functional Patterns can be tied in with the goal of decreasing anxiety related to caffeine:

  1. Addressing Postural Imbalances: Functional Patterns training emphasizes correcting postural imbalances and optimizing alignment. Poor posture can contribute to increased muscle tension, restricted breathing, and heightened sympathetic nervous system activity, all of which are associated with anxiety. By improving posture through specific exercises and movement patterns, Functional Patterns training can help alleviate these physical symptoms and promote relaxation.
  2. Myofascial Release: Myofascial massage can play a significant role in reducing anxiety. Functional Patterns training incorporates specific fascial release techniques that activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation and stress reduction. By incorporating these techniques into their daily life, individuals can counteract the effects of caffeine-induced anxiety and promote a calmer state of mind.
  3. Movement Integration: Functional Patterns training emphasizes full-body movements that promote functional strength, mobility, and coordination. Engaging in purposeful movement can help redirect anxious thoughts and release physical tension. By integrating movement patterns that activate the entire body, Functional Patterns training can provide a holistic approach to reducing anxiety symptoms and promoting a sense of well-being.
  4. Mind-Body Connection: Functional Patterns training encourages mindfulness and awareness of the body during movement. By fostering a strong mind-body connection, individuals can become more attuned to their physical and emotional states. This increased self-awareness can help identify and address anxiety triggers, allowing for a more proactive approach to managing anxiety symptoms related to caffeine consumption.
  5. Progressive Overload and Adaptation: Functional Patterns training follows the principle of progressive overload, gradually increasing the challenge and intensity of exercises over time. This approach promotes adaptation and resilience, both physically and mentally. By gradually exposing the body to stressors in a controlled manner, individuals can build a tolerance to stress and develop greater emotional resilience.

By incorporating the principles and techniques of Functional Patterns training, individuals can better regulate their nervous system which leads to decreased anxiety, better sleep, and less need for caffeine dependance. 

It's important to note that Functional Patterns training should be personalized and tailored to individual needs and abilities. Consulting with a Functional Patterns practitioner can provide guidance and support in developing a training program that addresses specific anxiety-related concerns effectively.

 

Conclusion

 

While caffeine is generally safe for most individuals, its relationship with anxiety is complex and influenced by various factors. The root of why we are using caffeine should always be considered. Most Americans are not getting adequate, quality sleep. Without adequate sleep, we aren’t able to produce adequate resources for functioning. Because of this deficit affecting so many Americans, most of us are already anxious, and caffeine is only exacerbating our anxiety. When turning to a cup of joe, we should shift our perspective on how it should be utilized as a tool, and not abused like a drug. 

Given that caffeine creates and exacerbates anxiety symptoms in a society that already is experiencing physical and mental health declines, it makes sense to address the root of why we’re so desperate to remain caffeinated. We need to prioritize getting good sleep, doing Functional Patterns to regulate the nervous system, and learn to live with less stimulation. 


Live intentionally, not habitually. 

 

References:

  1. https://www.ncausa.org/newsroom/nca-releases-atlas-of-american-coffee
  2. https://www.singlecare.com/blog/news/sleep-statistics/
  3. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2257922/
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