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Is Caffeine an Addictive Drug That Can Be Abused?

What is Caffeine?

Teen Caffeine AddictionA stimulant and psychoactive drug, caffeine impacts the central nervous system by blocking action of adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter promoting sleep and suppressing arousal. Consequently, ingesting products containing caffeine counteracts adenosine release, causing wakefulness and alertness. Although caffeine is considered psychoactive because of its powerful influence on mental processes, it remains unregulated and legal globally.

According to the U.S. FDA, caffeine is "generally recognized as safe" although ingesting more than 10 grams daily may be toxic. Depending on the type of coffee bean used to make coffee, one cup of coffee contains between 80 and 175 milligrams of caffeine. Preparation also determines amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee, with brewed coffee containing more caffeine than instant coffee.

Recently, the FDA issued a warning about pure caffeine powder supplements sold over the Internet in bulk packages. Several deaths have occurred due to consumption of what is basically a product containing 100 percent caffeine. The FDA warns that one teaspoon of pure caffeine powder is equal to about 28 cups of coffee. Signs of pure caffeine overdose include dangerously rapid or erratic heartbeat, vomiting, disorientation, stupor, seizures and possibly death.

The DSM-5 includes preparatory discussions about including caffeine addiction in future publications. In addition, the DSM-5 now recognizes caffeine withdrawal as a psychiatric disorder potentially requiring appropriate treatment by psychologists. 

Why Caffeine Use is So Attractive Among Teenagers and Young Adults

When teen addicts are asked why they abuse drugs, some of the more common reasons include stress (school, parents, peers), gaining acceptance by peers ("everybody is doing it"), low self-esteem, curious and/or bored, having parents who also abuse drugs and as self-medication for an untreated or undiagnosed mental illness (depression, generalized anxiety or bipolar disorder).

Caffeine Chemical StructureExacerbating an adolescent's justification for abusing drugs (especially those that are easy to procure, such as caffeine or over-the-counter sleeping pills) are complex developmental processes affecting the rationality of the teenage brain. Although adults see adolescence as a time of immaturity inflated by inexperience and narcissism, the biology of brain remodeling is a large part of why teenagers are susceptible to abusing psychoactive drugs.

Brain Remodeling and Dopamine

Research has found that dopamine levels in the adolescent brain are higher than adult levels of dopamine, which explains why teens have a low tolerance for boredom and a propensity to act impulsively without considering the consequences of risky actions. This "dopamine shift" also makes teens even more prone to abusing caffeine and ultimately, to addiction, since excessive release of dopamine is associated with most substance addictions. Moreover, cellular genetic material composed of epigenetic, non-nucleic molecules seems to contribute to adolescent drug abuse because early exposure to psychoactive substances seem to alter this specialized genetic material's ability to regulate dopamine release.

Is Your Teen Suffering a Caffeine Addiction?

Signs of a possible caffeine addiction include:

  • Dramatic changes in appetite and sleep patterns
  • Drops in school attendance and grades without offering reasonable excuses
  • Hanging out with a different set of friends
  • Extreme and sudden mood swings
  • Irritability and aggressive behavior (suddenly "lashing out" for no reason, throwing things)
  • Talking rapidly, sometimes incoherently and without logical association between one idea and another
  • Complaining of heart palpitations, chest pains and/or tachycardia
  • Excessively perspiring without cause
  • Dehydration (sunken eyes, rapid breathing/heart beat, low blood pressure, fever and, in severe cases, unconsciousness)
  • Inability to sit still
  • Inability to stop hands and body from shaking

Even though parents may know for a fact their teenager is not drinking coffee or tea, adolescents can still become addicted to caffeine through obtaining powders and supplements off the Internet or by getting caffeine products from friends. According to Consumer Reports, energy drinks contain anywhere from six milligrams per drink to as high as 242 milligrams per drink. In addition, some energy drinks are larger sized and may have more than one serving of caffeine in their product.

The Dangers of Pure Caffeine Supplements

Caffeine CansTeenagers can purchase over hundreds of thousands of milligrams of caffeine powder on the Internet for around $10 or $15. That's like buying nearly 1000 cans of Red Bull energy drink. Caffeine powder can be used to make milkshakes or mixed with other beverages and foods. Because caffeine is legal and so widely used, teenagers do not realize how easy it is to overdose on caffeine. Consequently, they do not measure caffeine powder according to instructions. In fact, mixing one or two spoonfuls of caffeine powder with their favorite beverage puts teens at risk for suffering dangerous side effects associated with drinking dozens of Red Bull energy drinks within a few minutes.

Signs of Caffeine Overdose

Caffeine overdose is clinically referred to as caffeine intoxication by the DSM-IV. Symptoms of caffeine intoxication/overdose resemble symptoms seen in people overdosing on both legal and illegal stimulants. These symptoms include:

  • Anxiety, overwhelming restlessness and unusual excitement
  • Rapid/irregular heartbeat
  • Hyperventilation
  • Facial flushing or visible paleness, depending on the extent of the overdose
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Muscle twitching and body trembling
  • Rambling, often disjointed speech and thought patterns
  • Manic behavior
  • Psychosis (delusions, visual and/or audio hallucinations)

Teens and adults suffering a caffeine overdose are usually given activated charcoal as emergency medical treatment, which stops caffeine from being absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract. If the emergency doctor determine excessive amounts of caffeine have entered the GI tract, the patient may be provided with laxatives or a gastric lavage (stomach pump procedure). While the patient is receiving treatment, doctors will monitor heart rate, blood pressure and other vitals to watch for possible shock. In addition, breathing support may be necessary for several hours following initiation of caffeine overdose treatment.

Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal

Caffeine abuse by teensCaffeine dependence, like other psychoactive drug dependencies, will cause caffeine withdrawal symptoms when caffeine abusers stop using caffeine powders or supplements. To counteract unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, caffeine addicts often return to using caffeine within one hour or several days of abstaining, depending on the level of tolerance and addiction.

Signs of caffeine withdrawal include:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Depression, anxiety and mood swings
  • Extreme fatigue/lack of energy or motivation
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Joint pains/flu-like symptoms
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Muscle stiffness/tenseness
  • Cravings for caffeine
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea

When teenagers suffer from caffeine addiction, they often fail to overcome their addiction by themselves because of the severity of withdrawal symptoms. Professional help is essential for teenagers to defeat a potentially life-threatening caffeine addiction.

Long-term Caffeine Side Effects

Crippling panic attacks and severe dehydration are the two worst long-term side effects of abusing caffeine. When the nervous system is constantly stimulated by excessive amounts of caffeine, it remains in "flight or fight" mode, an instinctive condition of hypervigilance. Stress hormones flood the body when in flight or fight mode, especially cortisol and adrenaline, which can have damaging effects on the heart and circulatory system. In addition, caffeine is a diuretic, meaning it increases the ability of the kidneys to filter blood fluid across capillaries. This process prevents reabsorption of Na+ (sodium) and stimulates water excretion. Caffeine can also interact negatively with a variety of medications, such as diabetic, antiplatelet and antibiotic drugs.

Treatment for a Teenager's Addiction to Caffeine is Available at Teen Treatment Center

We provide mental health, substance and behavioral therapy for teenagers suffering caffeine addiction and substance abuse. Our addiction counselors and psychologists not only assist teens with overcoming their caffeine addiction but also helps adolescents identify the underlying reason behind their addiction. While living in gender-separate residential treatment centers, teens will also learn useful coping and life skills to avoid getting caught in the cycle of psychoactive drug abuse.

Our Teen Treatment Center also offers the following programs and services:

Call Teen Treatment Center today to receive immediate help with a teenage caffeine addiction as well as all other substance or behavioral addictions. Call (844) 319-5239.



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