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Addicted to Joe: Jonesing for Java

By Krista Elliott

A lot of us tend to throw the word "addicted" around as a general catchall term for something we really, really like: 

"I am SO addicted to this new shampoo. It's amazing." 

"Yeah, I'm totally addicted to that new list-making app. No idea how I'd get stuff done without it." 

"I am completely addicted to coffee. Don't even TALK to me until I've had at least two cups!" 

All right, so that last one might have been me. (Seriously, I'm barely coherent before the coffee kicks in.) But for some people, saying they have a coffee addiction is more than just a euphemism for really enjoying a cup of joe. 

Is Coffee Addictive? 

If you have a serious coffee habit and have tried to give it up, or have had to go without coffee for a day or two, you might have wondered if you're addicted to coffee. If you weren't, you wouldn't feel so incredibly wretched without it, would you? On the other hand, it's just coffee ... how bad can it be?

Coffee isn't "bad" in and of itself. But because it's so popular and relatively harmless, we forget that caffeine is an actual drug. And like any other drug that monkeys around with your brain chemistry, it is very possible to become physically dependent on it. 

This is Your Brain on Caffeine. Any Questions?

So let's walk through this: You take a drink of coffee, which makes its way down your digestive tract, until it reaches your small intestine. At that point, the caffeine is absorbed and starts hitching a ride with your bloodstream. Now the neat thing about caffeine is that the chemical is able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and make its way right into your noggin.

From here, it gets complex, so I'll let the fine folks at Smithsonian Magazine drop some science: 

Structurally, caffeine closely resembles a molecule that’s naturally present in our brain, called adenosine (which is a byproduct of many cellular processes, including cellular respiration)—so much so, in fact, that caffeine can fit neatly into our brain cells’ receptors for adenosine, effectively blocking them off. Normally, the adenosine produced over time locks into these receptors and produces a feeling of tiredness.

The problem is that your brain liked things the way they were before you went and blocked all those receptors. So, over time, the brain will grow even more adenosine receptors to offset things. This explains why you need to use more and more caffeine over time to produce the same level of alertness. 

But when you stop drinking coffee? All those adenosine receptors are wide-open (remember, adenosine produces feeings of tiredness). Which means that you're going to crash, and crash hard. And your brain trying to sort out its altered chemistry? Yep, that's why you've got a raging headache. 

So if you want to give up your coffee habit, it's best to taper down gradually instead of going cold turkey. But even if you do, the worst of the withdrawal symptoms are usually over and done with in about a week or two, thanks to the brain's incredible resiliency. And we can all raise a cup to that.

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