Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
LSD, acid, magic mushrooms… These are all words that are likely to come to mind when someone says the phrase “psychoactive substance.” But where do we really find the most commonly used psychoactive substance in the Western world? It’s actually that caffeine in your good old morning cup of Joe. Even if you aren’t a coffee drinker, there’s a high likelihood that you still consume caffeine on a regular basis, albeit in lower doses, from other sources such as tea, cola, and chocolate.
Although it’s common wisdom not to drink coffee right before bed, caffeine consumption is so common that when it comes to having a cup of tea or coffee, most of us don’t think twice. And most of us certainly don’t think about the fact that caffeine alters brain functioning, with the potential to affect mood or cognition. If you are a regular coffee drinker, you are probably aware of how it keeps you alert when you’re tired–but you may not consider the other ways it could alter your mood or cognition, and how this might affect your mental health.
First, the good news: research has shown that moderate caffeine consumption (equivalent to two to six cups of coffee per day) can have a positive effect on people prone to depression. In addition, people who are treating their depression with prescription antidepressants may find that caffeine increases the effectiveness of the drugs. If you are taking antidepressants, this is a good topic to discuss with your psychiatrist in order to ensure your drug dosages are correct. Another potential positive effect of caffeine is for people with ADHD. Because caffeine is a stimulant (meaning it increases brain activity), and it constricts blood vessels in the brain, it seems to work somewhat similarly to the ADHD drug Adderall and increases the ability to focus and concentrate. Additionally, like those taking antidepressants, people with ADHD may find that caffeine increases the effectiveness of the medications they are already taking.
However, we then have the other side of the caffeine coin. There are mental health disorders that can be triggered by or exacerbated by caffeine consumption, and studies have shown that caffeine can trigger psychotic symptoms in people with schizophrenia. Caffeine has also been shown to exacerbate anxiety disorders and can potentially trigger a manic episode in someone with bipolar disorder. Generally speaking, small amounts of caffeine do not usually cause these types of problems, but it’s best to monitor yourself and determine how much is a safe amount for you. If you are currently consuming high amounts of caffeine on a regular basis, cutting out caffeine cold turkey can also cause problems, so it’s best to reduce your caffeine consumption slowly.
Ultimately, when it comes to caffeine, each individual will be affected differently. Knowing yourself, your own mental health triggers, and the way it affects you are keys to being a healthy caffeine consumer.
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