There’s a well known stereotype of people recovering from addiction chain smoking and drinking cup after cup of coffee. A study of Nashville area AA members suggests that the stereotype has some basis in reality. Researchers found that nearly 57 percent of respondents smoked cigarettes, compared to only about 14 percent of Americans overall, and nearly 89 percent drank coffee daily, compared to about 64 percent of Americans overall. Smoking is clearly bad for you and bad for your recovery, as we’ve discussed in a previous post. What about coffee though? The picture is more complicated for coffee and caffeine in general. While caffeine isn’t nearly as bad for you as smoking–not even in the same universe, really–there might be times when you should consider cutting back or quitting caffeine. Here is a look at some things to consider when it comes to caffeine in recovery.
First, the source of your caffeine makes a big difference. If you’re gulping down several energy drinks a day, you should definitely consider dropping that habit. There are several reasons energy drinks are especially bad. First and foremost is that they are typically loaded with sugar. A can of Monster has 54 grams of added sugar. For comparison, the American Heart Association recommends a daily limit of 37.5 grams of added sugar for men and 25 grams of added sugar for women. Too much added sugar increases your risk for many health issues including type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, certain cancers, and fatty liver disease–many of the same problems caused by substance use, especially alcohol. Sugar is also a mood killer, so if you struggle with lethargy or depression, the added sugar in energy drinks isn’t helping.
Although many energy drinks contain a comparable amount of caffeine by volume to coffee, the sweetness and larger serving size encourages higher caffeine consumption, which may cause problems like racing heart, shaking, anxiety, insomnia, and diarrhea. What’s more, energy drinks are often packed with random ingredients that may have unpredictable effects.
On the other hand, people have been drinking coffee and tea for centuries so their risks are pretty well understood. If you are drinking multiple energy drinks a day, switching over to coffee or tea will make you feel better and make you healthier.
Coffee, in particular, seems to be one of those things that are bad for us one month and good for us the next. This is typically the result of some study finding a small effect being published on a slow news day. As noted above, coffee and tea have been around for centuries and we would know by now if they had serious health risks. Decades of research indicate coffee and tea probably confer some mild health benefits in addition to keeping us awake and alert. Both are rich in antioxidants and lower risk for several kinds of cancer.
Coffee has been linked to lower risk of various health problems, including liver cirrhosis, depression, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and heart disease. Since alcohol and other substances increase your risk of some of these problems, moderate coffee consumption might be a way to offset some of those risks. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these effects are often small. If you don’t already drink coffee, it’s probably not worth it to start just for the health benefits but if you drink it already, they are a nice bonus.
If you have a substance use disorder, there’s a good chance you also have an anxiety disorder. Many people get into the habit of substance use as a way of coping with anxiety, perhaps social anxiety, OCD, PTSD, or other issues. What starts off as an occasional drink or Xanax before a potentially stressful situation evolves into a full addiction. Getting your substance use under control may also require getting treatment for co-occurring anxiety and managing your anxiety indefinitely.
Unfortunately, drinking four cups of coffee a day is not going to help your anxiety and will probably make it worse. As noted, caffeine mimics the effects anxiety–racing heart, shaking, faster breathing, stomach cramps, and so on. As a result, you are likely to have a higher baseline of anxiety, even if nothing really stressful is happening. Cutting down or quitting caffeine may also help moderate your anxiety symptoms, in combination with professional treatment.
Another reason caffeine may worsen your anxiety is that it tends to interfere with sleep. One study by researchers from Stanford found that participants rated their anxiety as being 30 percent higher following a night of sleep deprivation. Brain scans found that areas of sleep deprived participants’ brains were much more active in anxiety-producing areas and much less active in anxiety-controlling areas.
Even if you don’t have a particular issue with anxiety, caffeine can be a problem if it interferes with sleep. Many people already have some issues with insomnia in the early weeks and months of recovery and caffeine will only make it worse. Poor sleep has been linked to a much higher risk of developing major depression as well as anxiety. Insomnia reduces self-control, foresight, attention, and emotional regulation–all important faculties for recovery. Finally, poor sleep has been linked to physical health problems including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and more frequent illnesses.
People often don’t realize the extent to which caffeine interferes with their sleep. They assume if they don’t drink coffee too close to bedtime then they are fine. However, caffeine has a half life of between four and six hours so even if you have your last cup of coffee at noon, about a quarter of that caffeine will still be in your system by the time you go to bed. If it doesn’t cause insomnia, it may still affect the quality of your sleep, preventing you from getting enough restorative deep sleep.
Everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are different. For some people, a few cups of coffee in the morning will help them wake up, stay focused, and feel better during the trying times of early recovery. For others, coffee will make them feel jittery and anxious and keep them up at night. It’s important to know yourself and what you need. At Hired Power, we can help you develop an individualized treatment plan to overcome addiction in the long term. We can help you find the right treatment program for you, get you there, and help you transition back to regular life. To learn more about our services, call us at 714-559-3919 or explore our website.
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