Is There A Connection Between Caffeine And Depression?
Updated October 05, 2018
Reviewer Dawn Brown
Have you noticed an uptick in feeling down after consuming caffeine, whether in a chocolate bar, an energy drink, or your morning cup of coffee? Experts say that there is no obvious connection between caffeine and depression. However, those who are especially sensitive to caffeine or who consume too much of it may, in fact, experience depression more frequently than those who are not as sensitive to it and who do not consume as much.
Depression is believed to be caused by a host of lifestyle and dietary choices. For instance, the amount of exercise a person engages in each week, the amount of alcohol they imbibe, whether they smoke - and if they drink tea or coffee, and how much. Considering that tea and coffee are the most popular beverages in the world, next to water, it's easy to see how they could have such a significant effect on our overall moods and day-to-day living.
Interestingly, some studies have shown that those who suffer from depression consume more caffeine, presumably to boost their moods and give them the energy and motivation that they need to get through the day. But what if the caffeine that they are consuming is only making their conditions worse? This then becomes that vicious cycle: is drinking coffee making us depressed? Or are we depressed because we have been drinking so much coffee?
Perhaps even more interesting is the suggestion that a diet high in both coffee and refined sugar, when consumed together, can have more of a negative impact on a person's depression than the consumption of either of these substances would have when consumed alone.
Ways Caffeine Can Worsen Depression
Caffeine is known to keep us awake. Heck, half of us drink coffee because it keeps us awake! Caffeine can be helpful when it keeps us awake throughout the morning and into the afternoon, but when caffeine keeps us up all night, that's when it becomes a problem. Any disruption to a person's sleep can affect their mood. Less sleep can lead to an increase in anxiety and depression.
Caffeine doesn't just affect our ability to get to sleep; it can also affect our ability to stay asleep. If you drink a lot of coffee and wake up several times throughout the night, this can be because your body is still trying to process the caffeine that you drank throughout the day.
Heavy consumption of caffeine over time can result in side effects that make a person feel worse, such as an increase in headaches and blood pressure, nausea, heart palpitations, and a general feeling of restlessness. These symptoms are all programmed to the body's "fight or flight" response - a response that, if triggered often enough, can cause inflammation and disease.
People suffering from mood disorders may notice their depression worsening after consuming caffeine. For instance, people who are prone to panic attacks have noticed such occurrences becoming more frequent after consuming caffeine. And because caffeine only boosts the nervous system temporarily, those who suffer from depression may notice their moods drop significantly once the caffeine wears off. As a result, those who suffer from depression are advised against consuming copious amounts of caffeine.
Ways Caffeine May Help Depression
Some experts believe that instead of causing depression, caffeine may help lessen the effects of it. While caffeine provides a short-term boost of positive energy, some studies show that it may also have a positive effect on chronic depression as well - a condition that affects about 15 percent of the population in nations that earn higher incomes.
The Qingdao University Medical College, located in China, analyzed 15 studies that had been conducted in the past that were run to analyze the potential link between depression and the amount of coffee consumed. Their study deduced that there might be an eight percent reduction in the ability to develop depression per cup of coffee that is consumed each day. It should be noted that this is per an average-sized cup of coffee.
Caffeine's Effects on Chemicals in the Body
It was previously believed that depression resulted from a person suffering from too low of a level of serotonin. Serotonin is the chemical responsible for making us feel happy and at peace, and it is found in various areas throughout the body, including the central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract. However, another hypothesis suggests that depression may be the result of a bad immune system reaction that results in brain inflammation.
Qingdao's research suggests that the antioxidants in coffee may reduce this inflammation, thereby treating a person's depression. Failing that, the caffeine itself may be the trigger, what with its psychostimulant properties that cause a person to feel more awake and motivated to take on the day.
There is also a chemical in our bodies called "adenosine." Adenosine is practically nonexistent when we wake up from a good night's sleep - one of those sleep where afterward we feel awake, alert, and refreshed. However, the longer we go without sleep, the more adenosine builds up in the body, and we begin to feel increased drowsiness and a reduction in our levels of energy and motivation.
Adenosine works by attaching to what is called adenosine receptors in the central nervous system and activating those receptors, which leads to our feelings of fatigue. Caffeine also binds to these receptors, but unlike adenosine, it doesn't activate them. Instead, it blocks them, which stops them from activating those feelings that lead to a lack of energy and motivation.
This explains why coffee makes us feel better for the short term but not necessarily how it works in the long-term. Its long-term effects are caused by its ability to enhance the effects of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is the chemical that allows us to feel pleasure. When caffeine binds to those adenosine receptors, it also increases the amount of dopamine that can connect to the dopamine receptors in the part of the brain known as the "striatum." The striatum is the part of the brain responsible for making decisions and motivating us.
When we are depressed, we feel less motivated to do, well, anything. We may also suffer from a condition called "anhedonia," which is an inability to feel pleasure. It is believed that caffeine, in binding to the adenosine receptors, may increase both our motivation and our ability to feel pleasure. Both of these things can lead to caffeine having a lasting, positive effect on chronic depression.
Tea vs. Coffee
While both tea and coffee share similar ingredients, including caffeine and tannic acid, coffee appears to be better at combating depression than tea. This is because certain properties that are specific to coffee, such as ferulic acid and caffeic acid, make coffee an anti-inflammatory and, as such, can cause a reduction in the inflammation of brain cells that are commonly seen in people suffering from chronic depression.
While coffee may be more effective at preventing depression than most teas, green tea, in particular, can be just as effective as coffee in this regard. This is because green tea is high in antioxidants and other chemicals that may combat depression. Folate, for one, is believed to be effective at boosting one's mood, while theanine has been shown to increase the levels of both dopamine and serotonin in the brain. A study conducted in Japan deduced that a diet rich in consumption of green tea, coffee, and caffeine, in general, could protect against depression.
Ways to Combat Caffeine-Related Depression
No matter what, it is important to reduce the amount of caffeine you consume if you notice it is affecting your sleep and your mood. You can still enjoy your morning coffee, and maybe even your early afternoon coffee. But once that clock hits 3:00 or 4:00, switch to decaf. Some people have to limit their intake to their morning coffee only to ensure a good night's sleep, while others, unfortunately, have to remove caffeine entirely from their diet to notice a positive change. If you find that a reduction isn't working, you may need to switch entirely over to decaf.
Also, anxiety feeds off nervous energy, and what does caffeine give us but energy? Anxiety and depression often occur together, so to prevent suffering from anxiety, you may find it helpful to reduce your energy level - which can be done by limiting your intake of caffeine.
However, you may want to avoid going cold turkey at first. If you are a habitual consumer of coffee or energy drinks, it may come as too much of a shock to the body to completely stop drinking these beverages altogether. This can lead to your depression worsening, as well as other side effects like headaches, mood changes, and fatigue. You'll want to gradually reduce the amount of caffeine you consume to avoid triggering these potentially worsened side effects.
If you find it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain control over your depression, please consider speaking to one of our counselors at BetterHelp.com. All you need is a few minutes and an internet connection.