Stimulant induced anxiety: Coffee’s dirty secret

stress from caffeine stimulant

Disclaimer: I am not a Doctor, and I don’t play one on the internet. What follows is based off of scientific studies and personal experience. If you are struggling with anxiety or other medical conditions, consult with a medical professional.


I am a big fan of coffee. I like how it tastes and feeling like I can take on the world. Unfortunately, I started noticing that I was developing acute symptoms of anxiety a few hours after my morning beverage. Coffee contains caffeine, caffeine is a stimulant, and stimulants can worsen anxiety symptoms. If you are struggling with anxiety, and coffee is a daily part of your life, what can you do about it?


Determine if coffee is causing or contributing to your anxiety

The first thing to dig into before deciding to make a change, is to qualify whether or not your Starbucks addiction is negatively contributing to your emotional health. Now, I’m not normally an anxious person, and I don’t believe I suffer from chronic anxiety as many do. However, through careful observation of my physical and emotional feelings, I was able to determine that caffeine was negatively affecting me. When evaluating how food, beverage, or anything may be affecting you, a couple things need to be taken into consideration, and there are a few ways you can approach your self diagnostic efforts.

Write everything down

What most consider the most effective way to determine how you are feeling is to create a written record (Note I said ‘effective’, not ‘easiest’). For coffee and related anxiety, keep a journal of your wake and sleep times, amount of coffee and time consumed, and self-assessments of your emotional and physical states. After doing this for a few days, you will hopefully have a pretty clear picture of coffee’s effect(or lack thereof) on you, and can make a decision on next steps. The one issue I have with writing things down, while effective, is that it isn’t particularly convenient to do so. If journaling for a few days is overtly inconvenient for you, this next option might suit you better.

Leave yourself reminders

In lieu of writing everything down, try to start taking mental notes, and leave yourself little reminders around to check in with yourself. Change your phone background image to a picture of a cup of coffee, so you are reminded to think of your emotional and physical state every time you pick up your phone. Set reminders in your calendar or phone every 30-60 minutes with simple questions like “how are you feeling?”. Or my personal favorite, a 3 x 5 notecard taped to the side of my monitor. A simple question mark, or the word ‘coffee’ can be enough to remind you to frequently check in on yourself and see how you are feeling. Keep mental tabs on these check-ins for a few days. If you can consistently correlate a negative emotional experience or physical feeling to your coffee, you are on the right track. But, which negative experiences should you be looking for?

Know the symptoms of anxiety

I’ve struggled some with mental health in the past, including a stint of adjustment disorder, but I’ve self-identified as emotionally stable for most of my adult life. Part of my stability was naively rooted in unawareness of the symptoms of anxiety. Most people are familiar with symptoms like worrying, nervousness, and social fatigue. What I personally did not know (and I certainly cannot be alone in this), is that there is a whole list of other symptoms that can result from anxiety, including irritability, trouble sleeping, gastrointestinal problems, feeling tired, and more. Take some time with Dr. Google to familiarize yourself with the possible effects. For me personally, I noticed a rash of irritability 2 to 3 hours after consuming coffee and a general sense of physical uncomfortableness. These were acute symptoms that I could easily identify with my regular check-ins. What about persistent symptoms though?

Understand the difference between acute and persistent symptoms

When testing any variables in your life, make sure you understand the difference between an acute or persistent symptom. My coffee induced anxiety was producing at least two acute symptoms, that is the irritability and physical uncomfortableness, a few hours after drinking it. Acute symptoms can be thought of as reactions that happen as a direct result of an action. Drink coffee = bad thing within a few hours. However, you could also be experiencing persistent symptoms. A persistent symptom would be something that you feel all the time, regardless of whether or not you recently encountered the trigger. I also was experiencing persistent symptoms of anxiety in the form of fatigue, but I was unable to attribute them to the coffee until I went a month drinking only tea and water. It’s important to note that you will probably not be able to determine if you are affected by persistent anxiety symptoms as a result of coffee until you abstain completely. The other thing to consider, is that anxiety can be caused by numerous things, and that coffee might not be the cause of your anxiety, but could still be worsening your symptoms. If that’s the case for you, cutting out coffee may be one part of a broader solution for managing your anxiety. Persistent symptoms can be some of the hardest to understand and eliminate, because when you feel something all the time, it becomes your normal. If your persistent symptom isn’t bad enough, you might not actively be aware you are suffering.

I’ve determined that coffee induces or contributes to my anxiety symptoms, now what?

If you’ve managed to correlate feelings of anxiety with your coffee consumption, the first thing to evaluate is if you want to make a change. Maybe your symptoms aren’t that bad, and you really love coffee. If the trade off is worth it to you, don’t make any changes. Keep notice of your feelings over time though, you may want to make a different decision at a later point in time.

Stop drinking coffee cold turkey

The most obvious solution to reducing the effects of anxiety is to cut out caffeine completely. Fewer stimulants equals a calmer mind, which in turn should ease your symptoms of anxiety. I have gone several years in a row taking month long breaks from all caffeine. I practice this abstinence when I can feel my tolerance to caffeine increasing, and with it, my reliance. There are some obvious issues with cutting out stimulants completely. In addition to lack of energy, many people experience splitting headaches, and a lack of energy. I’d suggest complete elimination of coffee and other stimulants only if the resulting effect of these compounds is crippling anxiety, or if it is having a substantial negative impact on your life.

Use L-Theanine to counteract the negative effects of stimulants on anxiety

Fortunately, there is a natural solution to counteracting the anxiety typically caused by caffeine, the amino acid L-Theanine. This amino acid is naturally occurring with almost no known negative side effects. It inhibits brain neuron responses, producing a calming effect that can directly counteract the effects of caffeine. Additionally, it can aid with sleep at night and lower stress. A study from University of Shizuoka has shown that L-theanine also lower blood pressure, possibly helpful if you struggle with high blood pressure. If you already have low blood pressure, you should consult your doctor before seeking out additional L-Theanine through diet and supplementation.

Where to get L-Theanine

L-Theanine can be obtained through diet or supplementation. The best method of delivery is going to largely come down to personal preference. Below are a few of the options for you to consider.

L-Theanine Supplements

Available in supplement form, the recommended dosage is to take 100-200mg of L-theanine up to two times per day. A minimal toxic dosage of L-theanine has not been established, as amino acids are generally very safe when consumed orally. Excess amino acids are generally used by the body to build proteins that can be used by the body.

Bioavailability of L-Theanine Supplements

When ever you are considering supplementing a specific vitamin or compound, it is critical to take into consideration the bioavailability of the compound. Bioavailability is shorthand for, “How well can my body absorb and use what I’m giving it in it’s current form”. One small study sh0wed that human L-Theanine absorption rates in supplement form were comparable to that of tea, and available in larger does. It is important to note that absorption is not the only factor to consider in supplementation. Often, additional compounds may be needed for your body to properly use the substance. If supplementation is a simple and affordable route for you, current research suggests this is the most effective way to add to L-Theanine to your diet.

Tea contains L-Theanine

Tea is the primary natural occurring source for L-theanine, with some teas leaves containing up to 50% of their amino acids in this form. It is important to note that only true tea, from the plant camellia sinensis contains the amino acid. Herbal teas, unless built with a green or black tea base, will not have L-Theanine in them. Perhaps the best part about tea containing the amino acid, is that you can use tea to effectively replace your coffee, getting your caffeine combined with relaxing compound in one beverage. Most tea contains significantly less L-Theanine than supplemental options, but it may still be enough to produce the desired effect.

Matcha Tea as an L-Theanine Source

Matcha tea is unique in that it is the only preparation of the tea that involves consuming the entire leaf. As a result, this is the best type of tea to consume the greatest concentration of L-Theanine. The exact amount of the amino acids contained within a cup of matcha will vary depending on the source and processing methods used, but some high quality match can contain upwards of 46mg of L-Theanine.

Green Tea as an L-Theanine Source

Whole leaf tea can be a good source of the amino acid, but in smaller quantities. A 200ml serving Green tea was found to have 7.9mg of L-Theanine on average. This means you would receive approximately 40mg of for every liter of green tea that you drink. Shade grown varieties of green tea, such as Gyokuro, will have higher contents of the amino acid L-Theanine.

Black Tea as an L-Theanine Source

Whole leaf black tea has a slightly higher amino acid content than green tea, with an average of 24.2mg L-Theanine per 200ml cup. Despite it’s higher content, I encourage readers to taste and try a variety of teas to see what works for them. I find that some black teas produce in me anxiety effects similar to that of coffee. Your mileage may vary.

The value of undergoing a mood evaluation

Working through this process, the steps of evaluating your personal feelings and how they relate to your caffeine consumption can have both obvious and more tangential benefits.

The joy of finding energy + stabilized mood

Caffeine is a drug. It happens to be one of the most socially acceptable drugs, but it is a stimulant nonetheless. With any drug comes the roller coaster of emotions and addiction. If you can nail down a caffeine routine supplemented with L-Theanine, the benefit to your mental well-being and energy levels cannot go understated. Since mostly eliminating coffee, I’ve seen huge upticks in my productivity levels, and the elimination of the underlying anxiety I was experiencing. I’ve stepped off of the roller coaster, and into the express lanes.


Reduced dairy and sugar intake

If you do choose to eliminate coffee and replace it with tea, you will have the added health benefits of consuming less dairy and sugar (assuming you don’t take your coffee black). Oddly enough, the presence of L-Theanine in tea appears to be greatly reduced in the presence of milk. So hold the cream, and save yourself the calories.

Learn how to better check in with yourself

Perhaps one of the most useful benefits to undergoing this process is learning how to self-evaluate and recognize from an objective position how you are interfacing with the world. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of our own emotions and physical feelings, while being completely unaware of them. When this trap is sprung, it make little tasks seem immensely more difficult, and negative interactions appear to be someone else’s fault. Undergoing a systematic evaluation and change, focused on mood and energy, can start you down the path of developing a skill set that will serve you indefinitely. Paying close attention to your trending thoughts and feelings, while noting their relation to external stimuli (food, beverage, people, circumstances), is the path to recognizing patterns. Understanding the patterns can lead you to enact meaningful changes in your life. Powerful stuff.

Do what works for you. Health is individual.

More and more of today’s research is revealing evidence that individual health is more unique to each person than previously thought. Genetics have an effect on dietary needs. It isn’t entirely clear how coffee affects people differently, but it would appear that some people struggle with it, while others can drink it their whole life without obvious negative effects. Similarly, L-Theanine probably isn’t a magic bullet for everyone, but could radically change someone else’s life. Test and observe constantly, it’s your best bet for building a life in which your body and mind bring you joy, as opposed to being something you fight against daily.


Happy Sipping.

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Cover Photo By unsplash-logo Christian Erfurt

3 comments

  • Wanted to start off saying, thanks for adding a disclosure about not being a doctor! That being said, this is food for thought!

    Connie
  • Hi there ! I greatly appreciate this article. I can relate to it so much !

    Suffering from an coffe induced anxiety disorder, caffeine has made my life so much worse. In every aspect of it. (Relationships, small tasks, lower productivity at school). Before I drank coffee in my life, I was a nervous kid, but I was never stressed over small things or objectively meaningless events. I worked in a coffee shop for a while, where I could drink free coffee. I splurged, and over time, I got anxious about each and every thing in my life.

    Even though I traded coffee for tea, and L-theanine supplements, anxiety is still there in my daily life. Although, I can control it much better. It doesn’t affect my life as it was doing a year ago. Slowly recovering ! My doctor and psychologist think that it maybe was induced by caffeine, and if I didn’t drink coffee, I wouldn’t have developped symptoms. Who knows ! Good to know that some people are writing about this to make people more aware. If it can help someone, why not ?

    Great article about an interesting subject that needs to be read by everybody. Cheers !

    Jeremie Boudreau
  • This was such a interesting post to read I learnt something new today because of this post so thank you for that! I had to stop drinking coffee (when I was in college (many moon ago) because it was giving me really bad heart palpitations and making my anxiety much worse hence why I turned to tea. Ever since I’ve been a little better and have noticed such a chance over the years. I don’t think I could ever go back to drinking coffee now

    Kimberley

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