Coffee and caffeine: Why is caffeine an acceptable addiction?

Chloe Henry, sophomore psychology major, enjoys her salted caramel latte. Charissa Graves

Most of us drink coffee or caffeinated tea regularly. In fact, caffeine is the most commonly used drug globally, with about 85 percent of people consuming it on a regular basis.

Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, meaning that it constricts blood vessels, specifically in the head and neck region. As a result, it causes blood pressure and heart rate to increase, and it can cause less blood to flow to extremities. It also acts as a diuretic, meaning that it can make people feel dehydrated. People often use it to increase alertness and wakefulness.

However, a 2011 study found in the U.S. National Library of Medicine discovered that caffeine dependence occurred among a significant portion of those surveyed.

“34% endorsed craving, 26% said they needed caffeine to function and 10% indicated that they talked to a physician or counselor about problems experienced with caffeine,” according to the study.

Although caffeine reliance clearly exists on a significant scale in our society, caffeine remains a large and widely accepted part of our lives and society. However, many other addictions, such as alcohol and drug addictions, have much less acceptance throughout society.

Dr. Teresa Hamilton, associate professor of nursing, said addiction can be either physical, meaning that the body requires a substance to function, or psychological, meaning that the use of a substance becomes habitual.

“Physically, there is the dopamine-serotonin response where due to a substance, it changes those chemical reactions and therefore you crave it again and again to get that same feeling,” Hamilton said. “Then there is also a psychological addiction where we routinely get up and have our coffee first-thing. The same thing can happen with legal and illegal substances.”

Caffeine boosts dopamine signaling to the brain. Dopamine helps the body experience pleasure, meaning that it can trigger one’s desire to pursue an activity or substance again. However, Hamilton said that unlike many other addictive substances such as alcohol and some drugs, caffeine enhances alertness rather than impairing it. She said she believes this reality contributes to the acceptance of caffeine by society.

“Caffeine makes you feel more alert, whereas most other substances make you feel less like you can function, so (there is) impaired-ness in the more negatively looked at addictions,” Hamilton said.

Overall, caffeine presents much less of a danger to the user and others around them. For example, about 95,000 people die from preventable alcohol-related causes each year, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. In addition, driving under the influence led to 10,142 deaths in 2019.

Hamilton also contrasted a smoking addiction with a caffeine addiction. The stigma around smoking cigarettes is derived from the proven negative health effects of smoking. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate more than 480,000 people die annually from causes related to smoking or secondhand smoke.

In contrast to alcohol and nicotine addictions, a 2018 study identified only 92 deaths ever reported due to caffeine overdose. In fact, unlike many other addictive substances, studies have indicated that caffeine can have many positive impacts, including improving moods, relieving headaches, boosting long-term memory and reducing the risk of stroke.

Hamilton also said that culture plays a major role in deciding what society views as acceptable.

“Foods and exercise can get addictive too, and I would say it is based on pop culture because exercise is considered a healthy addiction,” Hamilton said. “It does a lot of the same things in our brain that some more negatively connotated substances have.”

Claire Bailey, junior psychology major, said she believes the culture surrounding coffee in our society makes caffeine dependence more acceptable.

“Caffeine, especially coffee, is not only a pleasant stimulant, but is deeply tied to social involvement,” Bailey said. “In fact the phrase ‘coffee culture’ has been coined in recent years to describe the behaviors and traditions linked with the consumption of coffee. The substance connects people from all across the world in a variety of ways. Thus, in regards to caffeine consumption via coffee, society actually tends to encourage it, which makes the alterations of the addiction far more difficult to spot.”

Although caffeine can lead to extreme health events in rare situations, caffeine usually does not seem to present any major short-term or long-term dangers to health. 

Caffeine withdrawal and intolerance do exist; caffeine withdrawal usually exhibits symptoms such as headaches, tiredness and irritability, and caffeine sensitivity usually leads to feelings of anxiousness, restlessness and racing heartbeat. 

However, there is no strong scientific evidence warning against ingesting normal amounts of caffeine, and Hamilton does not foresee any change in society’s relationship with caffeine without any strong scientific indication that it can be detrimental to health.

“Arguably, we would be healthier without it,” Hamilton said. “It is not like you need it in order to survive. We would all be better off drinking just water. I guess we have to decide what we are able to tolerate for our society. People say it is a guilty pleasure or that kind of thing, so obviously we know that it is not good for us, but there is a Starbucks on every corner and it makes us feel good and it helps us accomplish what we need to accomplish.”

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