Beyond Caffeine, Medical Experts Debate if Coffee is Physically or Psychologically Addictive

Joel Eisenberg

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Author’s Note

This article is free of opinion and bias, and is based solely on science and accredited media reports. No medical advice is offered herein on the part of the author. All listed theories and facts within this article are fully-attributed to several medical experts, scientists, and media outlets, including The New York Times, National Cancer Institute research fellow Erikka Loftfield, National Library of Medicine, JAMA Internal Medicine, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Food and Drug Administration, Healthline.com, DrugFree.org, WebMD, Wikipedia, Miho Hatanaka, RDN, L.D., Jon E. Grant, J.D., M.D., M.P.H.1, and Samuel R. Chamberlain, M.D., Ph.D.2.

For further perspective, I am a former mental health professional with training in Psychology. Though I left the field to become a full-time writer, I have continued my studies in the mental health realm.

Introduction

On February 13, 2020 (updated on November 12, 2021), The New York Times published what has become a defining article on the benefits of coffee. See here for "Is Coffee Good For You?” by Dawn MacKeen.

From the article: “The evidence is pretty consistent that coffee is associated with a lower risk of mortality,” said Erikka Loftfield, a research fellow at the National Cancer Institute who has studied the beverage.

MacKeen’s article has become defining as it has been widely excerpted and referenced since its original publication, including this link on the U.S. government’s National Library of Medicine homepage. A second excerpt from her New York Times piece states: A study in JAMA Internal Medicine examined the coffee habits of nearly 500,000 people in the U.K. and found that it didn’t matter if they drank one cup or chain-drank eight — regular or decaf — or whether they were fast metabolizers of coffee or slow. They were linked to a lower risk of death from all causes, except with instant coffee, the evidence was weaker.

The comprehensive JAMA Internal Medicine study, entitled “Association of Coffee Drinking With Mortality by Genetic Variation in Caffeine Metabolism,” is featured on the JAMA Network website and can be found here.

Until such comprehensive studies such as JAMA’s became more common in medical circles, coffee drinking had been largely considered an unhealthy habit primarily due to its misunderstood caffeine component. See here for Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health article, “Is Coffee Good or Bad For Your Health?” which alludes to those early conclusions: Although early studies of coffee suggested that it could lead to health problems, recent research provides strong evidence that drinking coffee actually has a variety of health benefits.

This present article, however, is about addiction to coffee beyond the caffeine component and not the safety of the drink which, though widely concluded in the present is healthy for the consumer, continues to be studied.

Caffeine Addiction, and Beyond

Before we delve further into the issue as posed in this article’s title, a brief about both caffeine and addiction should be included here for the purpose of perspective.

Caffeine, a natural stimulant classified a ”psychoactive drug” by the FDA, has long been blamed for coffee’s negative effects, but as mentioned when ingested in coffee or even certain teas — as opposed to soft drinks or energy drinks — studies have pointed to the food additive’s benefits, such as enhanced focus and mood, and decreased fatigue.

For healthy adults, the FDA recommends a safety limit of 400 mgs of caffeine daily. For further information, see here for “Spilling the Beans: How Much Caffeine is Too Much?” as published on the FDA’s website.

On the concept of addiction, my training as a mental health professional is helpful in this regard as I had taught substance-addicted children and adults for ten years. Addiction is also a largely misunderstood concept, which is well-explained in “Addiction: Misunderstood, Greatly Undertreated, Report Finds” from DrugFree.org. See here for article. As caffeine is classified as a drug by the FDA, this article is a particularly informative read.

You can find the evolving DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) definition of addiction here, on the U.S. National Library of Medicine webpage, in an opinion piece entitled “Expanding the Definition of Addiction: DSM-5 vs. ICD-11,” written by Jon E. Grant, J.D., M.D., M.P.H.1 and Samuel R. Chamberlain, M.D., Ph.D.2.

Excerpted from Grant and Chamberlain’s piece: As compared to DSM-IV, the DSM-5’s chapter on addictions was changed from “Substance-Related Disorders” to “Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders” to reflect developing understandings regarding addictions.The DSM-5 specifically lists nine types of substance addictions within this category (alcohol; caffeine; cannabis; hallucinogens; inhalants; opioids; sedatives, hypnotics, and anxiolytics; stimulants; and tobacco).

The present consensus among U.S. doctors, as elucidated in the article, is caffeine is addictive. WebMD, however, disagrees (to a point), stating in ”Caffeine Myths and Facts”: No doubt, caffeine withdrawal can make for a few bad days. However, caffeine does not cause the severity of withdrawal or harmful drug-seeking behaviors as street drugs or alcohol. For this reason, experts do not consider caffeine dependence an addiction.

Those experts referenced clearly are not the same as referenced above.

That aside, what about coffee’s other ingredients?

Coffee has been determined to contain some unidentified chemicals within its makeup, while organic coffee is completely natural. Regardless, in both instances, the concept of physical addiction has been studied. Healthline.com discusses the matter here. From the article by Alina Petre, MS, RD (NL), entitled, “Are Coffee and Caffeine Addictive? A Critical Look”: For instance, your brain cells may start to produce more adenosine receptors as a way to compensate for the ones blocked by caffeine.In turn, the higher amount of receptors requires you to consume a higher amount of caffeine to achieve the same “caffeine fix.” This explains how regular coffee drinkers build up a tolerance over time. On the other hand, abruptly cutting off the caffeine supply suddenly leaves your brain with a lot of free receptors for adenosine to bind to.

The article also discusses behavioral coffee addictions as being due largely to habits, and environmental factors, but what is not discussed are the over 1000 chemical compounds also in coffee, several of which have yet to be identified and are presently being studied. Their full effects, to now, remain unknown. See fully-attributed Wikipedia entry here.

Further, many people put cream and sugar in their coffee, which potentially adds to a psychological addiction. See here for another U.S. National Library of Medicine article, “ Evidence For Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake,” by Nicole M. Avena, Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel.

Note: This is an older article that remains on the government’s U.S. National Library of Medicine website due to its continued relevance. Pieces later disproven are deleted.

Healthline.com posits similar conclusions to those of Avena, Rada and Hoebel. See here for an April, 2020 report, “Experts Agree: Sugar Might Be as Addictive as Cocaine.” This report was written by Anna Schaeferand Kareem Yasin and medically reviewed by Miho Hatanaka, RDN, L.D. Among its findings: Eating sugar releases opioids and dopamine in our bodies. This is the link between added sugar and addictive behavior. This implies a physical addiction as well, and this article as well goes on to state a component of the addiction does indeed alter brain chemistry.

Conclusion

Though a final determination as to the safety of coffee consumption has been debated for years, and according to doctors will likely continue to be so, most studies seem to agree that both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffees are harmless for most. As with any other food or drink product, over-indulgence can be unhealthful.

However, as the main context of this article has concerned coffee addiction beyond the caffeine factor, and in that regard questions have arisen regarding sweeteners and unknown chemicals, the studies continue.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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