Data recently featured in the Journal of Psychopharmacology tells us that caffeine addiction is not a real thing. Caffeine withdrawal, according to the study is no consistent across participants and the conclusion was that caffeine withdrawal symptoms are caused by expectations. So it is all in my head? I call this BS, (acronym for bad science). Are they telling me that the throbbing headache when I stop drinking coffee is just imaginary? Hmm…
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Data that was recently featured in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, add to burgeoning research on the effects of caffeine withdrawal. The researchers recruited individuals that said they typically drink at least three cups of coffee a day (or 270 mg). Even though the participants chosen for the study were defined as heavy caffeine users, three cups are actually the national average.
The study began by indiscriminately assigning individuals to one of two groups. Over the course of five days, each group was allowed to drink two cups of coffee a day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, with the amount of caffeine diminishing gradually over the course of the study period. On the first day, both groups received 300 mgs of caffeine, on the second day their caffeine ration was reduced to 200 mg, then 100 mg on the third day and 0 mg on the fourth and fifth days. The only difference between each group was the information they were given. The first group, called the “Open Reduction group,” received accurate quantitative information regarding their caffeine rations, while the second group, called “The Deceptive Reduction group,” was told that they received the full 300mg of caffeine for the first three days.
Using a Caffeine Withdrawl Symptom Questionaire, researchers were able to compare the purported effects of both groups. The questionnaire is informed by a 23-item scale, determining discernable symptoms like fatigue, drowsiness, low alertness, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, low sociability/motivation to work, nausea/upset stomach, flu-like symptoms and headache.
The authors report, “The Open Reduction group reported more pronounced caffeine withdrawal symptoms than the Deceptive Reduction group on the days with the greatest discrepancy between actual dose and informed dose, indicating a nocebo effect of open versus deceptive reductions.”
Withdrawal or Expectation?
Despite being given identical doses of caffeine, withdrawal symptoms varied notably between the two groups. The only problem is, there’s no real way to determine which participants were responding more accurately. The only categorical takeaway is that expectation plays a huge role in how the amount of caffeine we are or aren’t consuming is impacting our wellness. The Open Reduction group that was given accurate information reported withdrawal systems that fell in line with the steadily decreasing dosage but was that merely because they were previously aware of the outcome they were expected to experience (known as the non-placebo effect)? The Deceptive Reduction group was most likely biased by reason of the placebo effect.
The authors wrote, “These results suggest that awareness of dose reductions during a dose taper can result in a nocebo withdrawal effect and that removing this awareness can reduce withdrawal. This has important implications for standard supervised dose-tapering practice, where patients are aware of the timing and magnitude of dose reductions.”