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August 5, 2013
by Cindy Marie Hosszu

Does Caffeine Stress You Out?

August 5, 2013 02:00 by Cindy Marie Hosszu




We are wired...

These days, we don’t often find ourselves running from mountain lions on our way to hunt for dinner, but our bodies are still wired to protect us from threats.  Some more common threats we face in our time is mounting bills, busy jobs, raising teenagers, or… the amount of caffeine we put in our body.  Caffeine increases cortisol levels in the body at rest, and exaggerates stress. [1]  Cortisol is a stress hormone that functions to manage blood pressure, control blood sugar, and immune response.  Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands, and is what we know as the fight or flight response.  The same fight or flight response that was released when faced with a predator before computers, and other machines or gadgets existed to bring us a new kind of stress in our lives.

While we may not think of them as a threat, our bodies deal with stress the same way it would deal with the threat of running from mountain lions.  When faced with a perceived threat, the hypothalamus, in the brain, initiates a process in which the body releases signals that alert your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones.  One of the hormones is adrenaline which increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and energy.  Another hormone is Cortisol, which increases glucose in the bloodstream to trigger your brain to use glucose efficiently, and repair tissues.  Cortisol also represses the immune system, digestive system and reproductive system, as well as the growth process.  This process also controls mood, motivation, and fear.[2]  After the threat has been removed, the hormones naturally flow back to a normal state of balance.

That cup of coffee in the morning gives us that boost of cortisol that we need to feel energy, and get our body moving.  When we feel the crash that comes after, we often follow up with another cup of coffee, raising our cortisol again.  We think it ends there, but research has found that the effects don’t just last for the day; they also last into the evening. [3]  If this is a daily ritual for us, we may be putting ourselves at risk of adrenal stress. What happens in the body when the fight or flight response is activated without the action of fight or flight, is that the level does not flow back to natural state of balance properly.  That constant flow of cortisol will increase the stress and eventually make it harder to manage stress.

Symptoms of Stress

Symptoms of adrenal stress will not show up overnight, but will happen slowly and gradually.  Some of the symptoms are fatigue, depression, trouble sleeping, dizziness, muscle weakness and back pain, recurring infections, headaches, inflammation, salt craving, memory problems, hyperpigmentation, and excessive thirst.[4]

The Effects of Stress

Elevated cortisol levels can cause weight gain, increase in cholesterol, heart disease, and can lower bone density, as well as immune functions.   It can also interfere with learning and memory. Long term increases in cortisol can cause damage to the brain and impair mental function.  It is associated with cell death, which is associated with increased depression, mood, and nervous system disorders.  If cortisol levels fluctuation too often, it can cause depression and mental illness. The executive function which is responsible for decision-making, planning, and reasoning are compromised.

Tips for Stress

Because caffeine exaggerates stress, it is best to not use any amount of caffeine during times of high stress such as physical exertion, emotional stress, grieving or illness.

To initiate the final step in the response get aerobic exercise regularly for about 30 minutes.  You can do something that lets your aggression out, such as punching bag, or kick boxing.

Reduce anxiety by using meditation, or other relaxation techniques:

  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Laughter and music helps reduce anxiety.
  • Have healthy relationships.
  • Seek professional counseling when needed.

[1] William R. Lovallo, Noha H. Farag, Andrea S. Vincent, Terrie L. Thomas, Michael F. Wilson, Cortisol responses
to mental stress, exercise, and meals following caffeine intake in men and women, Pharmacology
Biochemistry and Behavior, Volume 83, Issue 3, March 2006, Pages 441-447, ISSN 0091-3057

[2] "Chronic stress puts your health at risk -" Mayo Clinic. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2013.

[3] "Caffeine Affects Cardiovascular and Neuroendocrine Activation at Work and Home." Psychosomatic Medicine. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, n.d. Web. 25 July 2013.

[4] Wilson, James L. Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Petaluma, CA: Smart Publications, 2001. 27-45. Print.

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