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Caffeine withdrawal now classified as a mental disorder

Jun 11, 2013

The American Psychiatric Association recently released an updated version of its manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) and this time it includes a new addition: Caffeine withdrawal.

It’s mighty easy to get addicted to coffee—it’s even encouraged, provided for free in workplaces. But many of us have found ourselves in the classic addict’s conundrum: After a while it stops getting you up—you just feel down without it. So you decide to kick it and switch to peppermint tea for a week. All hell breaks loose—you’re dazed, racked with a throbbing headache and tired as hell. So you think, just one cup. Next thing you know you’re putting off quitting until next week.

We’ve all been there. But the APA is now willing to call this a full-on mental disorder. Withdrawal “conditions are considered mental disorders when they impair a person’s ability to function in daily life,” writes the Wall Street Journal. It’s not exactly clear to me why this is being classified as mental disorder rather than just a physiological reaction. But if you’ve ever felt caffeine withdrawal, “impairing a person’s ability to function in daily life” is not hyperbole.

Caffeine withdrawal was upgraded from its previous status as pending in the last DSM. Researchers have concluded that in order to have full-on caffeine withdrawal a person needs to experience at least “three of five symptoms within 24 hours of stopping or reducing caffeine intake: headache, fatigue or drowsiness, depressed mood or irritability, difficulty concentrating, and flulike symptoms such as nausea or muscle pain.”

Roland Griffiths, a professor at Johns Hopkinis who advised the APA, has some tips for kicking the habit:

He recommends the seriously addicted “gradually reduce their caffeine intake over a period of weeks” and and start by mixing decaffeinated drinks with caffeinated ones (half-caf, in Starbucks parlance) to slowly reduce their caffeine by about 25% per week.

Griffiths says this is the best way to wean off the drug without getting crippling headaches, of which about 50% of caffeine addicts get.

But Griffiths also defends the merits of caffeine: “If I’m sleep deprived, it’s a really effective drug. It’s very useful if you’re not dependent on it because then it’s more powerful and more effective and you don’t have any withdrawal,” he says.

Given that most Americans are pretty much always sleep deprived, the lesson here apparently is that you need to pick what days you’re going to be your best, caffeinated super-hero self, and when you’re just going to be your regular zombie self.


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