When consumed in moderationcaffeine is safe and even has some health benefits. But because caffeine is psychoactive, the brain can develop a tolerance and physiological dependence in some people who consume large amounts.  Current medical evidence supports that caffeine withdrawal symptoms can occur when stopping the use of caffeine after heavy and prolonged use.

Cutting back or stopping caffeine after prolonged and heavy intake can result in some unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal.  Have you ever experienced a bout of irritability, headaches, or difficulty concentrating and know that a cup of coffee is just what you need to pick you up? This may be a sign that you are experiencing a caffeine withdrawal.  

What are the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal?

The onset of caffeine withdrawal usually occurs within 12 to 24 hours of your last consumption of caffeine.  Headache is the most common symptom of caffeine withdrawal.  Other symptoms may include:

  • Headache
  • Marked fatigue or drowsiness, decrease in energy
  • Dysphoric or depressed mood
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Flu-like symptoms (nausea, vomiting, or muscle pain/stiffness)

The severity of the withdrawal symptoms depends on the amount of caffeine you have been using, as well as the abruptness by which you stop.

If you are looking to cut back, or stop using caffeine, a slow reduction of intake over 1 to 2 weeks may make the process more bearable.  

Thinking of cutting back your caffeine intake?

Fifty percent of chronic caffeine users will experience symptoms of caffeine withdrawal if they stop.  If you are a heavy coffee drinker, it may be more helpful to reduce your coffee intake gradually over time.  Gradual reduction will help ease the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. 

This post was co-authored by Suzanne Black, MD, BSc, Erin Manchuk, BScPharm, BCGP and Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc.

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