Maybe you can’t start your day without it. Maybe you need it to get you through the afternoon slump. Or maybe it’s saved you during many nights of studying or working (or partying). So many of us rely on a little caffeine kick to get started or keep us going throughout the day. But when does a good thing become a bad thing? It’s important to listen the warning signs your body gives you that let you know when something good for you becomes unhealthy. If you are showing several of the following symptoms at once, you may have had too much caffeine.
Jitters and Restlessness
You, like many of us, might find caffeinated drinks to be an awesomely delicious way to get some extra energy, and that boost can feel great. Yet too much caffeine can put your body over the edge so to speak. That stimulation from caffeine gets hormones like adrenaline to pump out more into your body, and too much adrenaline can make you start to get jittery or shake. Think of it as a similar effect to when you are frightened—you get an extra shot of adrenaline and you might shake or feel jittery from the “nerves”. The caffeine also quickly gives your body an overabundance of energy that it can’t use, causing you to feel “buzzy” with energy. Pretty impossible to get into a restful state under those circumstances, instead you can become restless or even hyperactive from the caffeine. This heightened and extended state can put a strain on your nervous system, especially your adrenals, causing them to become fatigued.
That caffeinated coffee or tea can be soothing, and so some people drink them to help cope with stress. However, an overdose of caffeine can have the opposite effect. We’ve already discussed how it can get your central nervous system in a bit of a tizzy, and that extra adrenaline puts your body into a “fight or flight” mode—like when your scared, it’s the thing that instinctively makes you either flee from danger or fight for your life. It’s a heightened state of anxiety. The caffeine also affects your body’s release of dopamine, the hormone in your brain that gives you happy feelings and helps to regulate anxiety and inhibits the flow of the neurotransmitter GABA which helps to keep your brain calm. As you might expect, the anxiety levels found in men and women due to a caffeine overdose differ, and a small study found that an uptick in anxiety was more often seen in men.
Isn’t caffeine supposed to make you more alert and sharpen your thinking? For many it does, and often people feel that their brain is muddled when they don’t have their coffee. But having an overabundance of caffeine can have the opposite of the desired effect. Caffeine is considered to be a psychoactive substance which means that it affects the thinking part of your brain, altering your thoughts and mood. Instead of making your brain clear, too much caffeine can cause your thoughts and speech to ramble (similar to drinking a bit too much alcohol) or cause you to feel depressed.
In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has labeled this effect as one of four caffeine-related disorders. These symptoms including the anxiety we mentioned in the previous point, can be easily confused for a mental disorder, so it’s important to look at or let your doctor know any other symptoms you might experience in order to determine whether these are related to caffeine toxicity.
Being that caffeine is mind-altering as we just talked about, an overabundance can cause your brain to have trouble distinguishing reality, possibly causing you to see and hear things that aren’t real. In study of what happens to your brain on excessive caffeine, people were exposed to the sound of white noise (that static-y sound on old radios and TVs) but claimed that they heard the song “White Christmas” playing. It’s thought that this symptom could be caused by a lot of caffeine boosting your body’s stress hormone, cortisol, and these high-stress levels can cause visual or audio hallucinations. As much as this might be somewhat unnerving if you’re experiencing it, this isn’t usually considered to be serious unless it interferes with your daily life. It is worth mentioning though that long-term stress has some serious impacts on your body, even if those stress spikes are from too much caffeine.
Besides increasing the flow of adrenaline which keeps your body and mind from being in a restful state, caffeine messes with the brain chemicals (melatonin and adenosine) that let your body know when it’s time to go to sleep, so it tricks you into staying awake instead of letting you feel sleepy, kind of like leaving the light switch in your brain stuck in the “on” position. Many of us might cut ourselves off from the caffeine earlier in the day, having too much caffeine, even in late afternoon or early evening can still be affecting your ability to fall into a nice restful sleep, or even sleep at all. Research shows that it can take a normal amount of caffeine 6 hours to leave the body, though some studies show that it can keep your brain awake for up to 9 hours, which is more likely the effect you’ll get with an overdose. It’s easy to underestimate just how much caffeine you’ve had, or how late you can keep drinking without it affecting your sleep. Try cutting out the caffeine earlier in the day to help your body get sleepy when it needs to.