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Caffeine: The Overlooked Addiction?

With potentially severe withdrawal symptoms, some experts say caffeine should be treated like other addictive drugs.


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By Fionna Agomuoh


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A handy US News guide highlights what may be the most common—and the most overlooked—of all addictions. Caffeine is the world's most-used drug. Legal and accepted, it's a popular additive for many products other than drinks, such as chocolate, gum, vitamins, snacks like "caffeinated peanuts" and many over-the-counter meds. If you're a coffee-drinker who's ever gone without, you may well have experienced fast-acting withdrawal symptoms within 12-24 hours of abstaining. These include: headache; lethargy and drowsiness; depressed mood; anxiety; nausea; vomiting; muscle pain and stiffness; and inability to concentrate.

But Roland Griffiths, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, believes people still tend not to consider caffeine a drug, because it doesn't carry the negative associations of other substances. "Yet the basic mechanisms by which it hooks people are very much like our classic drugs of addiction,” he argues. According to Griffiths, when people say, "I really don't get going until I have coffee, and then I feel great," they often don’t realize that they're already experiencing the moderate withdrawal symptoms that occur from abstaining overnight. His research concludes that it could take as little as 100 milligrams of caffeine—about one 8oz cup of moderate-strength coffee—to bring on mild withdrawal symptoms. Caffeine addiction is considered so serious that last year, "caffeine withdrawal syndrome" was suggested for inclusion in the upcoming revision to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The provision; however, has not yet been approved.

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