Most adults in the U.S. use caffeine, whether in coffee, soda, energy drinks, or chocolate. Many are also familiar with the effects of suddenly drinking less coffee than usual: tiredness, headaches, insomnia, and other symptoms. And many people talk about being “addicted” to their morning coffee or energy drink!
But is caffeine truly addictive?
It’s all about the dopamine
The world’s caffeine obsession can be described as a “dependency” (because when you have less of it, you go through a mild “withdrawal,” with the symptoms listed above), but it is not an addiction.
It is true that—like many drugs—caffeine enhances dopamine signaling in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical that helps control movement, motivation, and emotions, so enhanced dopamine signaling makes a person feel more awake and alert. Because caffeine produces that alert feeling, it’s classified as a stimulant.
While caffeine produces a small rise in dopamine, it does not cause the large surge that unbalances the reward circuits in the brain and is necessary for an addiction. So even though the word “addiction” is often used casually, caffeine is not addictive (scientifically speaking).
How do you define addiction?
NIDA defines addiction as the uncontrolled (or “compulsive”) use of a substance even when it causes negative consequences for the person using it. Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA’s director, recently talked to Voice of America about the real definition of addiction.
So the difference between caffeine dependence and addiction to drugs like meth is that even a person who loves to drink coffee can do without it, deal with the headaches and irritability that result, and not engage in destructive (or self-destructive) behavior.
Too much caffeine—like too much anything—can still be harmful. But even if you just gotta have that energy drink, know that your love of caffeine doesn’t compare to a real drug addiction that can change your life forever, in very bad ways.
Learn more: Take our quiz on coffee and energy drinks.