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Caffeine Withdrawal Now a Mental Disorder

by Dr. Corey Schuler, MS, DC, CNS, LN

caffeine withdrawal

If you are a committed coffee drinker or enjoy a few too many caffeinated sodas or drinks on the weekends and are considering modifying your habits, your morning routine and entire world as you know it now has new implications. You may be mentally unstable.

As part of the roll-out of ICD-10 (the International Classification of Disease version 10), the medical rule book that places you squarely into a box based on a series of three to five digits, the DSM-V (American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders version five) has a quirky new diagnosis that may affect you.

It is called withdrawal from caffeine intoxication. The diagnosis is well meaning. People who consume 250 mg of caffeine can experience caffeine intoxication and can fundamentally change their brain chemistry. The withdrawal period of this drug, yes drug, is now a listed and recognized diagnostic mental disorder.

How much is 250 mg?

12 ounces (Tall) Starbucks Coffee            
32-56 ounces of green tea, brewed for 3 minutes            
100 ounces of most sodas (5 – 20 ounce bottles)
1.5-16 ounce cans of most energy drinks
1.9 ounces of 5-Hour Energy (contains about 208 mg)

Caffeine-related disorders include intoxication which first made it into the DSM-IV in 2011 with symptoms ofrestlessness, nervousness, excitement, insomnia, flushed face, excessive urination (diuresis), gastrointestinal disturbance, muscle twitching, rambling flow of thought and speech, tachycardia or cardiac arrhythmia, periods of inexhaustibility or unintentional motion (psychomotor agitation). If you know me at all, you might not recognize me if I didn’t express these symptoms.

Caffeine withdrawal and its inclusion as a mental disorder started rumbling almost 10 years ago when an article appeared in Psychopharmacology where researchers from American University (Washington, DC a bastion of caffeine consumption) wrote about the symptoms of withdrawal including:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased energy/activeness
  • Decreased alertness
  • Drowsiness
  • Decreased contentedness
  • Depressed mood
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Foggy/not clearheaded
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Muscle pain/stiffness

With a list of symptoms like this, I’m starting to believe this should be included in the manual. They go on to say “the incidence of headache was 50% and the incidence of clinically significant distress or functional impairment was 13%.” Those are high numbers for withdrawal from a widely available, freely distributed, and highly utilized drug. What is interesting to me is that they noted that these symptoms of caffeine withdrawal tend to occur 12-24 hours after the high and continue for 2-9 days.

And this may come as no shock, but the higher the daily dose of caffeine, the worse the symptoms. What I found really curious is that symptoms were caused by doses as low as 100 mg. They concluded, mind you, this is 2004, “The caffeine-withdrawal syndrome has been well characterized and there is sufficient empirical evidence to warrant inclusion of caffeine withdrawal as a disorder in the DSM and revision of diagnostic criteria in the ICD.” It is 2013 and now it is included. So instead of being shocked, maybe we should be appalled at how long this inclusion took!

I can attest to the validity of the new withdrawal diagnosis. As part of my support of a client who is training for a bikini competition, I gave up, with her, coffee for the month of June. On May 31st, I enjoyed a medium Americano and probably a pot of home-brew in expectation of the worst month of my life.

June 1st hit hard. The entire first week, I exhibited all of the tell-tale signs of an addict. I searched for every version of “coffee-methadone” I could find. I even [gasp] drank a soda, which has no redeeming qualities. I just about sputtered it out. Yes, the symptoms are transient, but they are intense. Headache and irritability were my symptoms. I’m still writing apology notes.

As for me, I’ve learned my lesson. I have been controlled by a substance for far too long. However, I enjoy coffee for its flavor, its effects, and health benefits, and will find a more healthful way to enjoy my warm beverage of choice.

There is a take home point. For those who are embarking upon a new detoxification program, a new health habit, or simply shifting your gears in relation to the food, supplements, or medications you are using, please remember that it is not always the addition of a substance that causes symptoms, but it can also be the removal of substances that causes symptoms (or improvements).

The next substances you might see in an article like this might be sugar (sucrose or fructose) or any of the artificial sweeteners (sucralose aka Splenda, aspartame, acesulfame potassium aka ace-K).So, don’t just tell your healthcare provider what you started to fix your problem, but also tell them what you stopped. 


Reference: Juliano LM, Griffiths RR. A critical review of caffeine withdrawal: empirical validation of symptoms and signs, incidence, severity, and associated features. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2004 Oct;176(1):1-29. Epub 2004 Sep 21.

photo credit: Vermin Inc

About the author...

 is a board-certified nutrition specialist and functional medicine clinician. He is a frequent radio and podcast guest on the topic of connecting the dots between mood, hormones, and metabolism. He has appeared on Underground Wellness, Elevate Your Energy, Five to Thrive Live, Primal Diet Modern Health, Doctor Health Radio, Let’s Get Healthy with Bill Swail, Good News Health Show, Healthy Choices, and The Opening Door. He teaches for the School of Applied Clinical Nutrition and The Institute of Transformational Nutrition, is a frequent speaker at functional medicine and nutrition conferences for practitioners, and consults for nutritional supplement companies. Growing up on a family farm, followed by a stint in research chemistry at NASA, taught Dr. Schuler to combine nature and science in a systems approach to health and healing. He is the creator of the Clear Mind Diet and the author of When Nutrition Doesn't Work: What Went Wrong and How to Find a New Doctor available on Kindle. He is the clinic director for Metabolic Treatment Center which uses food-based, functional medicine approaches to bipolar, depression, and anxiety, PCOS, food sensitivity recovery, and thyroid disorders.