The Dark Side of Coffee: Caffeine’s Effect on the Body

Many people claim they can’t function without their morning cup of coffee—and it’s not hard to see why. Coffee provides a substantial dose of caffeine that makes you feel alert and ready to take on the day—at least temporarily. 

While coffee provides some impressive health benefits due to its antioxidant content, there is a dark side to America’s favorite caffeinated beverage. We’ll discuss the downsides of your cup of joe in a moment, but first, let’s cover some basics. 

What Is Caffeine? 

While coffee has an enjoyable taste, people mainly drink it because of its caffeine content. Caffeine is a psychoactive substance that’s naturally found in many plants, including coffee beans, tea, and cacao pods. 

It works by stimulating the brain and central nervous system, making you feel alert and preventing the onset of tiredness. Caffeine can also improve concentration, reaction time, mood, and performance. 

Sounds like a miracle substance, right? Eh, not so fast. Those benefits are temporary and are only seen when caffeine intake is low—approximately 80-100 mg, which is the equivalent of a regular cup of coffee. 

The average American, however, consumes much more than that—just over three cups per day.[*] Drinking coffee is so commonplace that most people don’t even consider how the caffeine in their beloved vanilla lattes might be negatively affecting their bodies and minds.  

What Are the Downsides of Caffeine? 

While not everyone will experience negative consequences from their daily coffee habit, they’re more common than you’d think. Let’s take a look at the possible side effects of caffeine.

1. Can increase anxiety and jitters 

As a stimulant, caffeine increases the amount of adrenaline your body produces.[*] Adrenalin is the hormone responsible for the “fight or flight” response that allows you to protect yourself from danger.   

When adrenaline levels increase after coffee consumption, your body experiences the same nervous, high-alert feeling you’d feel if you were in a threatening situation.  

Additionally, caffeinated coffee can lead to increased jitters, tremors, restlessness, muscle twitching, blood pressure, and heart rate, which can make an already anxious person feel even more anxious. 

Caffeine-induced anxiety is so common that it’s listed as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association.

2. Can disrupt sleep 

Caffeine’s claim to fame is its ability to help people stay awake. It achieves this by temporarily blocking the effects of adenosine, a brain chemical that makes you feel tired. This might be helpful when you’re in a long business meeting, but it’s anything but helpful when you’re trying to fall asleep at night. 

Caffeine stays in your system for an average of five hours, but the effects may last for up to nine hours, depending on the individual.[*] That means that, in some cases, the cup of coffee you had at 3 p.m. could make it more difficult for you to slip off into dreamland come bedtime. 

Studies support this effect, showing that higher caffeine intake increases the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and decreases sleep duration.[*][*]

3. Can cause energy crashes  

While the caffeine in coffee can initially cause an energy surge, it’s often followed by an energy crash, characterized by intense sleepiness, a headache, and irritability. 

A caffeine crash typically occurs three to four hours after consuming a moderate to high amount of caffeine. Being in a tired state before consuming caffeine also tends to enhance the severity of the crash.

4. Can cause digestive issues

Many people find that a morning cup of coffee gets things moving, if you know what we mean. However, too much caffeine can lead to digestive upset, loose stools, and even diarrhea.

Additionally, some studies show that caffeinated beverages, especially coffee, may worsen gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) in some people.[*][*]

5. Can become addictive 

Many people don’t realize that caffeine is classified as a drug. As with other drugs, regular caffeine consumption can lead to psychological or physical dependence, especially when consumed at high doses. If you’re a daily coffee drinker, you probably experience this when you feel like you need your morning cup of coffee before you can talk to anyone or get your day started. 

Additionally, like other drugs, going without caffeine for several hours may lead to withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, and irritability.[*

Boost Your Energy without Caffeine  

While light caffeine intake appears to be safe for most people, the reality is that most people don’t stop at one cup of coffee. There’s the double cappuccino in the morning, a cup of joe at work, and an iced latte before your workout. 

Caffeine intake can add up quickly, and most people haven’t connected the symptoms they’re experiencing, such as anxiety, poor sleep, and energy crashes, to their caffeine intake. If the symptoms and conditions in this article are ringing a bell, it might be time to consider reducing your caffeine intake. 

Reducing your caffeine consumption might seem like a tall order, but it’s wholly possible with some time, patience, and helpful tips under your belt, such as the following: 

Prioritize sleep  

Are you skimping on sleep? Sleep isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity, so aim to get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Take steps to set yourself up for successful sleep by dimming the lights in the evening, avoiding screens a couple of hours before bedtime, and ensuring your room is dark, quiet, and cool. 

Get moving

Rather than reaching for a cup of coffee to overcome an afternoon slump, take a walk instead. While that might sound counterintuitive, getting your blood flowing is a highly effective way to awaken the brain.[*

Replace your caffeinated coffee drinks

Swap out your coffee and other caffeinated beverages with non-caffeinated options like decaf coffee, herbal tea, or a coffee alternative like chico. 

Chico is a caffeine-free coffee substitute that contains six superfoods, including Ashwagandha, Cacao, Gotu Kola, Lion’s Mane, Maca, and Rhodiola Rosea. These plants provide benefits like increased focus, brain function, energy, and alertness without the downsides of caffeine. It’s a win-win!