Caffeine and OCD: Is It As Harmful As You Think?

Is there anything better than a hot, steaming mug of coffee first thing in the morning? Many of us can’t imagine life without caffeine, but the sad truth is that we might need to think twice about downing that cup of joe if we suffer from mental illness, including OCD.

However, you might be surprised to learn that consuming caffeine when you have OCD might not be an automatic no-no. Here’s your complete guide to caffeine for OCD sufferers.

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Caffeine: Quick Facts

We’re sure you know the basics of what caffeine actually is – it’s the thing that keeps you going from 9 to 5 – but before we jump into the pros and cons of caffeine, it’s important to understand where exactly caffeine comes from, and how it affects the body.

Where does caffeine come from?

Caffeine is a natural stimulant that is usually found in coffee beans, tea leaves, and cacao seeds. There are also forms of synthetic caffeine that are found in some cola beverages, energy drinks, diet pills, energy supplements, and pain relievers.

How does caffeine affect the human body?

Caffeine is a stimulant which affects our bodies’ central nervous system. It gives the nervous system a little jolt, which is what makes us feel more alert and energized. Caffeine also can have a diuretic and laxative effect on the body.

What does caffeine do to the brain?

Put as simply as possible, caffeine blocks the brain cell that prevents the overstimulation of the brain’s nerve cells. This means that when we consume a lot of caffeine, there’s nothing keeping our nervous system’s stress response from becoming overactive – which can cause an increase in anxiety, like we’ll talk about later.

The Benefits and the Risks of Caffeine

The question we’re dying to know the answer to is this: is caffeine really terrible for you? How many cups of coffee can I get away with drinking?

There’s actually a specific answer to that: researchers have found that the average person drinks two 8-ounce cups of coffee a day, which contains around 280 milligrams of caffeine. Most healthy adults can safely consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day.

As they say, though, “too much of a good thing” can harm us. As with most things in life, it turns out that balance is important, especially if you have health conditions or a caffeine sensitivity. Caffeine (especially in forms like coffee and green tea) does have some health benefits, but too much of it could get you in trouble.

Benefits of Caffeine (and Coffee, Specifically)

Caffeine actually has some benefits to our health, especially when taken in natural forms like green tea or coffee (as opposed to energy drinks). In general, caffeine in moderate amounts has been shown to be safe for most people, and can even be good for us in some ways.

On top of this, coffee in particular has been shown to have numerous health benefits; in fact, some of these benefits are associated with decaf coffee as well as caffeinated, so the benefit might not even be associated with caffeine itself. We’ll let you know if each benefit applies to caffeine as a whole or only to coffee.

Energy and Intelligence

This is an obvious one, as it’s the reason most of us are such coffee lovers. Coffee and other caffeinated beverages can give us a boost in our energy levels and can even improve our intelligence temporarily.

Caffeine moves through our bloodstream and ends up in our brain, where it interacts with some neurotransmitters and can increase levels of certain brain chemicals, like dopamine. That means that parts of your brain might start working better, including the parts that control memory, mood, and energy levels.

Alzheimer’s and Dementia

There is some research that coffee, specifically, may help protect you from developing Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia later in life. Research studies have shown that people who drink coffee may have up to a 65% less chance of developing these diseases, although the specific reason isn’t known.

Diabetes

Some research has shown that coffee, specifically – caffeinated or decaf – might help to reduce the risk of developing type two diabetes. However (and this is an important “however”), if you already have diabetes, then caffeine could impact your insulin in a way that alters your blood glucose levels, so you should be careful.

In general, though, the average person only drinks around two cups of coffee a day, and the caffeine that’s found in that amount hasn’t been shown to affect blood glucose levels in any significant way for most healthy adults.

Liver Disease

Here’s a surprising benefit of caffeine that you’ve probably never heard about: it may help fight different kinds of liver disease, including cirrhosis, cancer, and Hepatitis C. Research has shown that people who drink 4 cups of coffee a day could have a 65% less chance of developing cirrhosis.

This might be because when our body digests caffeine, it releases a chemical called paraxanthine that can help stave off liver disease. In addition, coffee in particular may have extra benefits for your liver; two other chemicals found in coffee might help fight cancer in general.

Moderation is Key: The Risks of Too Much Caffeine

Even though caffeine, consumed in low to moderate amounts, has been shown to be safe and even helpful for most people, that – unfortunately – doesn’t mean that we can drink as much coffee as we want without worrying about the consequences. Like most good things, too much caffeine in any form does come with risks, some of them serious.

Gastrointestinal Issues

Research has shown that too much caffeine can have a harmful effect on your digestive system. You might have noticed that your morning cup of joe helps get things moving. That’s partly because a hormone called gastrin is released in our stomachs when we drink coffee, even if it’s decaf. On top of that, the caffeine itself acts as a sort of laxative by causing contractions that help move food through your digestive tract.

Although this can be a good thing, especially if you’re stopped up – having regular bowel movements are important to your health – too much coffee can cause… well, too much of that laxative effect. Some people find that coffee induces loose stools, which is not something that anybody wants to have to deal with.

On top of that, research has shown that caffeine can increase the risk of gastrointestinal reflux disease, more commonly known as acid reflux or heartburn, in some people. Claims that caffeine causes stomach ulcers, however, have been shown to have no scientific evidence.

High Blood Pressure

Caffeine stimulates the body’s nervous system, which causes heightened blood pressure. The good news is that this effect seems to be temporary; however, it’s still not great for you to experience high blood pressure multiple times a day, if you are a frequent coffee drinker.

High blood pressure can lead to an increased risk for heart disease, so especially if you have high blood pressure or are at risk for heart disease to begin with, this is something serious to consider.

Dehydration

You may have noticed that on top of getting your bowels moving, caffeine also makes your bladder feel full more often, too. That’s because caffeine has an effect on your kidneys, which in turn leads to more frequent urination. This is called a diuretic effect.

The problem with this is that when you urinate more frequently, you risk becoming dehydrated – and dehydration is known to cause several nasty symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, and dry skin. However, in general, caffeine’s diuretic effect seems to be mild, and researchers haven’t found that average consumption makes you dehydrated.

Overdose

In general, you’re not likely to suffer from a caffeine overdose if you’re just drinking coffee or tea. However, caffeine is being consumed in more artificial ways these days, especially by young people – including in diet pills and energy drinks. An analysis of calls to the Illinois Poison Center in Chicago found that there were 250 calls in 3 years about caffeine ingestion, and 12% of those callers had to be hospitalized.

Caffeine abuse or overdose can lead to symptoms like nausea, vomiting, tremors, and chest pain and palpitations. Again – it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ingest enough caffeine in coffee and tea to experience these effects, but some energy drinks contain an unsafe amount of the substance and should be avoided.

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Caffeine and Mental Health

Now that we’ve talked about caffeine’s effects on the physical body, let’s talk about mental health specifically. If you’ve suffered from mental health symptoms in the past, you might have been told by your psychiatrist at some point or another that giving up coffee would be a good idea.

That’s because caffeine has been shown to exacerbate some mental health symptoms – especially anxiety – and can make you feel mentally and emotionally worse, overall.

Caffeine Can Increase Anxiety

The American Psychological Association reports that caffeine can worsen the symptoms of anxiety and panic disorders. We all know what it feels like to be “hopped up” and jittery when we drink a couple of energy drinks too many. When you live with anxiety, those jitters are hardly distinguishable from the hyperarousal state you experience when you’re having an anxiety attack.

Although some of us appreciate the feeling of extra-alertness that we experience when we have caffeine, if you have an anxiety disorder, you don’t need your brain to be any more alert. Even people without anxiety, when they ingest too much caffeine, can start to feel symptoms of anxiety caused by caffeine’s effect on the brain.

In general, if you have an anxiety disorder and have noticed that your symptoms get worse when you’re hopped up on caffeine, it’s probably a good idea to try to reduce or cut out caffeine from your diet.

Caffeine and Insomnia

If there’s one thing that is crucial to good mental health, it’s a consistent sleep cycle. Going to sleep late or not getting enough sleep has been shown to have endless negative effects on our mental well-being, including worsening mania in bipolar disorder, increasing the risk of developing depression, and getting in the way of recovering from anxiety or PTSD.

It’s not good news, then, that too much caffeine can cause disruptions in our sleep. One research study showed that people who had just one shot of espresso 3 hours before bedtime went to sleep 40 minutes later than usual. It’s not hard to see how even more caffeine would interrupt our regular sleep pattern and cause all sorts of mental health troubles.

For most people, just one cup of coffee a day isn’t going to cause insomnia. However, some people are extra sensitive to the effects of caffeine, so your experience might vary. In general, all of us should avoid having caffeine 6 hours before going to bed, especially if you have trouble falling asleep to begin with.

Does Caffeine Decrease or Increase Depression?

On one hand, sleep deprivation caused by caffeine can increase our risk of developing depression. On the other hand, though, some studies show that caffeine might actually help improve symptoms of depression – especially symptoms like low energy and fatigue.

A few studies have shown that caffeine, especially in the form of coffee, helped to mitigate the risk of depression. Tea was helpful too, but surprisingly, not as helpful as coffee was in this regard. Researchers have theorized that this effect might be caused by different acids that are found in coffee, which help with the inflammation of the brain’s nerve cells that’s found in people with depression.

That doesn’t mean that you can just down those giant mugs of coffee risk-free, however. Although those studies demonstrated that caffeine could have a positive effect for depression sufferers, there’s also research that shows it can actually make depression worse – confusing, we know. This might be because, as we’ve already learned, caffeine heightens anxiety levels – which can sometimes lead to a deeper level of depression.

The real answer to whether caffeine is good or bad for depression? We need more research to be able to say for sure.

Caffeine’s Interactions With Psychiatric Medications

Many people who have mental health disorders take prescribed psychotropic medications like antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. This is an important factor when it comes to how caffeine affects mental health – many medications, including the ones typically prescribed for mental illness, are known to have drug interactions with caffeine that can have serious consequences for your health.

For example, one study showed that caffeine may interact with the antipsychotic drug Clozapine in a way that causes significant side effects. If you’re on any psychiatric medications at all, it’s important that you talk about your caffeine intake with your prescribing doctor.

Caffeine Can Become An Addiction

Perhaps worst of all, caffeine is a drug like any other, even though most of us don’t think of our morning cup of joe that way. That means that we can become addicted to it, just like we can get addicted to any other drug. And developing an addiction to any drug is never a positive thing for our overall mental health.

The DSM-V actually lists a mental health condition called “caffeine use disorder”. Just your morning Starbucks, however important it is to your day, won’t meet the diagnostic criteria for this disorder, though; the manual cites “persistent and unsuccessful efforts to cut down […] caffeine use”, “continued caffeine use despite knowledge of having […] a problem that is likely to have been caused by or exacerbated by caffeine”, and symptoms of withdrawal as the three main signs that you do, indeed, suffer from a caffeine abuse problem.

Just like coming off of any drug, caffeine withdrawal can be painful. The symptoms of caffeine withdrawal range from headaches, fatigue, and tremors to effects to your mental well-being like irritability, anxiety, depressed mood, and difficulty concentrating. If you feel like you might be developing an addiction to caffeine, then it may be a sign to cut back.

Caffeine and OCD

This is an OCD blog, after all; you’re probably wondering, What about OCD, specifically? Does caffeine make my OCD symptoms worse? How much coffee can I get away with drinking if I’m diagnosed with OCD?

The short answer is: we don’t know yet. For guidance around your specific situation, talk to your doctor or psychiatrist. However, here are some general things you might want to consider.

Caffeine might help reduce OCD symptoms

Especially after reading about the harmful effects of caffeine on most mental illnesses, you might be shocked to learn that some research has shown that caffeine might actually help to reduce symptoms of OCD. The findings overall are inconclusive, though, so don’t start gulping down ten cups of coffee just yet.

Researchers in Tehran conducted a double-blind study to measure the effect of caffeine for people with OCD. The results might surprise you: the study found that the group of people taking caffeine (as opposed to a placebo) experienced a decrease in OCD symptoms.

To put it very simply, the researchers hypothesized that this might have been because the main effect of caffeine is that some important neurotransmitters are released, including serotonin. SSRI medications, which are traditionally recommended for the treatment of OCD, also increase the level of serotonin in the brain through a similar mechanism (by inhibiting the reabsorption of serotonin in your neurons).

Another study, conducted by researchers in Jerusalem, also showed that OCD sufferers who drank a cup of caffeinated coffee were able to resist their urge to wash their hands after touching something they viewed as “contaminated” for almost twice as long as the control group (who were given decaf). The researchers hypothesized that caffeine may play a role in increasing the brain’s inhibition, which in turn reduces intrusive thoughts, urges, and compulsions.

Caffeine May Still Affect Your OCD Negatively

As encouraging as that research study is for coffee lovers with OCD everywhere, there are still other things that you want to consider when it comes to OCD and caffeine. Remember when we said that caffeine can increase anxiety? Well, if you have OCD, it’s not news to you that OCD spikes can cause an incredible amount of anxiety, and even panic attacks. Caffeine might make that anxiety worse – and the research shows it does.

You also want to consider what other mental health conditions you experience. Many people with OCD also suffer from a comorbid condition; this basically just means any mental illness that we experience alongside OCD. Some of the most common comorbid conditions with OCD are mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and OCD-related disorders such as trichotillomania and body dysmorphic disorder. Depression in particular is common amongst OCD sufferers; up to 60% of people with OCD will go through at least one depressive episode in their lifetime.

Even if the research were conclusive about whether or not caffeine helps improve OCD (which it isn’t), you still need to consider all of the other mental health diagnoses you have, and whether or not caffeine could be harmful for those disorders. Especially if you suffer from an anxiety or panic disorder, this is something that you should pay close attention to.

Also consider what medications you’re taking. Like we discussed earlier, many psychiatric medications interact poorly with caffeine. For example, taking Luvox (one of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants for OCD) may increase the effects of caffeine – which might mean increased anxiety.

The Verdict? It’s Still Out

The truth is that there are just too many variables for us to be able to tell you whether caffeine is harmful or helpful for your symptoms of OCD – including your caffeine sensitivity, co-occurring conditions, and the medications you’re on, not to mention things we haven’t even talked about like whether or not you’re pregnant.

At the end of the day, there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation when it comes to OCD and your caffeine consumption. Just because caffeine isn’t an automatic no-no when you have OCD doesn’t mean it’s an automatic green light, either. Talk to your doctor, and ask them for guidance around your specific situation.

Despite the benefits that a few studies show, relying solely on caffeine for OCD treatment isn’t a good idea. Instead, use a treatment model that is evidence-based, like those we use for the Impulse Therapy program. Whether or not you can enjoy a hot cup of java every now and then, though, is up to you and your doctor.

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