Coffee drinkers love coffee for several reasons: the lovely scent, the variety of flavors, the health benefits, and that oh-so-helpful energy boost that comes from its most popular compound, caffeine. But, for those with mood disorders, research may suggest caffeine has more to offer than that familiar fix.
What are the benefits of caffeine? Caffeine increases alertness, enhances physical activity, and optimizes cognitive function. It also has a reputation for improving mood. That being the case, let’s see if there’s a connection between caffeine and depression.
What does the research say about caffeine and depression? The research on caffeine and depression is relatively young and inconclusive; however, the relationship between the two warrants a closer look.
Caffeine: A Natural Stimulant
Caffeine is an antioxidant known for how it stimulates the central nervous system. About 20-45 minutes after coffee consumption, caffeine metabolizes, enters the bloodstream, and travels throughout the body. Caffeine primarily affects the brain.
Most noticeably, caffeine blocks adenosine receptors. (Adenosine is a biochemical that causes us to feel tired.)
Additionally, caffeine jumpstarts adrenaline production, which signals the body’s fight-or-flight responses. One response is a release of glucose which the body can use for quick energy to better evade danger. Because drinking coffee is far from dangerous (unless you have a coffee allergy), the body uses that energy to meet deadlines instead of, say, outrun a lion.
Is caffeine a natural antidepressant? Caffeine consumption does lead to an increase in serotonin and dopamine levels. These neurotransmitters are responsible for helping us feel motivated, happy, and content. Higher levels of these “feel good” chemicals might translate to a lower risk of depression.
The Pros: How Caffeine Can Help Fight Depression
According to one meta-analysis, moderate caffeine consumption has been associated with decreased symptoms of depression.
One study showed a link between caffeine a lower risk of suicide.
Can caffeine help people with depression? Caffeine may help people with depression. Generally speaking, caffeine tends to have an uplifting effect which could counteract depressive symptoms. Though caffeine offers an energy and mood boost, it’s worth mentioning that they are temporary.
In addition, there’s emerging evidence associating caffeine with the prevention of other mental disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease. Currently, caffeine appears to have protective and anti-inflammatory effects on these neurodegenerative illnesses.
Not only has caffeine shown promise in potentially preventing some mental illnesses, but it has also been linked to enhancing brain function in a couple of specific ways.
A 2021 review indicated that caffeine positively affects short-term and long-term memory.
How does caffeine affect anxiety and depression? Excessive amounts of caffeine are known to increase feelings of anxiety, though the jury’s still out regarding caffeine and depression.
Because caffeine accelerates adrenaline production, that hormone can leave us feeling on edge, stressed, or agitated for an extended period.
Can caffeine cause depression? Caffeine likely won’t cause depression, but it can negatively affect those with a depressive disorder. Depression typically stems from such things as life-altering events, genetics, and chronic chemical imbalances in the brain.
The Cons: Possible Side Effects
A review from 2018 suggests that it’s wise to keep a healthy skepticism regarding observational studies claiming the protective effects of caffeine.
Those suffering from anxiety disorders could be more susceptible to anxiety-inducing symptoms of caffeine, especially from increased intake.
The NIH cautions pregnant women when it comes to caffeine consumption, as caffeine could lead to lower birth weight for the baby.
Too much caffeine can cause negative effects such as
- High blood pressure
Should people with depression avoid caffeine? Not necessarily. Caffeine’s effects vary from person to person. Two people may have a depression diagnosis, and caffeine consumption restores one while perhaps exacerbating the other’s symptoms. It’s best to 1. consider factors contributing to caffeine’s effect, and 2. to closely monitor your response to caffeine.
Factors to Consider
A number of factors can contribute to how individuals experience the effects of caffeine. The following are a few things to take into account.
Coffee vs. Tea and Other Sources
Caffeine concentration can differ a great deal between beverages. For example, coffee contains more caffeine as opposed to tea. Also, coffee strength, which depends on origin, roast, and brew method can affect caffeine content.
If you suffer from depression and think caffeine could be worsening your symptoms, it’s best to familiarize yourself with the various sources of caffeine, so you know what to avoid. The biggest caffeine culprits are as follows:
- Caffeinated coffee
- Energy drinks
- Soft drinks
- Energy bars
The FDA approves 400 milligrams of caffeine daily, or about 4 cups of coffee. Coffee intake beyond that could increase the possible adverse effects of caffeine.
The amount of time caffeine lasts in your system depends on a few things: height, weight, and caffeine sensitivity. Believe it or not, caffeine can last for 6+ hours in the body.
Monitoring Caffeine Intake for Mental Wellness
Though caffeine can positively affect depressive symptoms, it’s important to be mindful of caffeine intake. Developing a dependence on caffeinated beverages could cause withdrawal symptoms should you change how many caffeinated drinks you consume.
How does caffeine affect mental health? The effects of caffeine vary widely among individuals, and research indicates both positive and negative effects of caffeine on various mental health components. Because of the broad spectrum on both of these fronts, it’s difficult to definitively conclude caffeine’s effects on overall mental health.
What are some other ways to lower depression? Depression, often referred to as major depression, is a serious mental disorder. If you’ve experienced symptoms, be sure to contact your doctor. Prescriptions and a treatment plan may be prescribed. An official diagnosis will allow you to know how to proceed. Some other resources to consider would be
- Psychiatry or counseling
- Healthy Diet
- Reducing stressors
- Developing friendships
- Pursuing a passion/hobby
The relationship between caffeine and depression is complex. While research points to potential positive effects of caffeine, it’s important to be well-versed in the risk factors involved with caffeine as well. Lastly, mental health matters! If you’re struggling in this area, prioritize consulting your healthcare provider so that you might begin the healing process.
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- Moderate daily caffeine intake during pregnancy may lead to smaller birth size | National Institutes of Health (NIH)