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Can Caffeine Offer Mild Treatment For Depressive and ADHD Symptoms?

After one month of no caffeine, I'm back to drinking coffee, and other delightfully caffeinated beverages. I could not be more grateful.

The reintroduction of caffeine has had a positive effect on my productivity, my focus, my alertness and my overall mental state.

As far as my personal experience with caffeine is concerned, I simply couldn’t function without it.  Using the term “functionmight imply I need it to wake me up in the morning, or to keep me from crashing in the afternoons--and while caffeine can certainly serve that purpose in some instances, it’s all-important functionality is that it has a considerably positive effect on my cognitive operation.  Specifically, caffeine reduces my anxiety, depressive symptoms, impulsivity and my ADHD-like symptoms such as flight of ideas.

For a lot of people, too much caffeine can have a negative emotional effect: it can contribute to anxiety, jitteriness, irritability, impulsivity, and insomnia. A moderate amount of caffeine does the opposite for me.


Jitteriness and Anxiety

Because many people experience jitteriness and increased anxiety when they consume too much caffeine, my personal experience may seem counterintuitive, but I’m not an anomaly.  According to a 2005 study of rats with hyperactivity, impulsivity, poor attention and deficits in learning and memory, a significant improvement was reported in test results when caffeine was administered to the rats beforehand. And in a 10-year study, spanning from 1996 to 2006, researchers found that depression risk in human females decreases with increasing caffeinated coffee consumption. The study included 50,739 women and the clinical depression was "defined as self-reported physician-diagnosed depression and antidepressant use."

Accordingly, moderate caffeine intake (< 6 cups/day) has been associated with less depressive symptoms, fewer cognitive failures, and lower risk of suicide.

Benefits include increased alertness, attention and cognitive function and elevated mood.

Generally speaking, the way it works is that dopamine levels in the brain have to be within a very narrow margin in order for a person to be able to focus on their work. But in Bipolar Disorder¹, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or other conditions that share symptoms like distractibility, impulsivity, and flight of ideas, the dopamine level is too low. Stimulant chemicals such as caffeine or amphetamines tend to increase dopamine levels, nudging them to that narrow margin that's "in the zone", so to speak.

For most people, adding stimulants will push dopamine levels too high, causing agitation and anxiety. But for people with ADHD or BPD, adding stimulants can get the levels where they ought to be. Therefore, in some cases, having coffee throughout the day can make a significant difference in mental clarity and focus.²


Caffeine Benefits

Caffeine is a stimulant drug, so it mimics some of the effects of stronger stimulants used to treat ADHD, such as amphetamine medications. ADHD sufferers find it has the opposite effect than it does in other people: instead of making them more active and stimulated, it actually has more of a “calm-down” effect, and encourages sleep. Many adults with ADHD turn to coffee to "self-medicate". Caffeine’s stimulating effect helps them focus and stay on task. The effectiveness of coffee in calming children diagnosed as ADHD is controversial, but would likely work the same way.³

For parents who say they don’t want to administer drugs or chemicals to their child for their ADHD symptoms, a cup of coffee brewed from organically grown coffee beans might be the more attractive alternative.

What makes caffeine an intriguing option for an adult or child with ADHD is, when considering our rising healthcare costs, it’s ubiquity, affordability, and ease of use is difficult to pass up.

However, caffeine used for children or teens is not necessarily safe, advisable, or preferable to prescription ADHD medication.


Studies about Caffeine

Furthermore, some experts caution that using caffeine to help curb psychiatric symptoms in combination with psychiatric medications can have negative reactions. According to some reports, caffeine has been found to increase anxiety, hostility and psychotic symptoms.

A recent study of the neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine, was conducted by a group which surmised “assessment of caffeine intake should form part of routine psychiatric assessment and should be carried out before prescribing hypnotics”  (Winston, et al). This group was of the opinion that psychotropic medications--particularly antipsychotics--and caffeine, do not mix well.  They suggested that decaffeinated beverages should be provided on psychiatric wards.  They felt as though psychotropic medication and caffeine had no business being in one shared body.

The benefits are the positive effects of the drug and ease of use.  Since it is so readily available, individuals can adjust their own dose, time of administration and dose intervals of caffeine, according to the perceived benefits and side effects of each dose.  The  benefits are  increased alertness, attention, and cognitive function and elevated mood.

The drawbacks are possible chemical dependency and assorted caffeine-related disorders, but besides the possibility of mild drug dependence, caffeine may bring benefits that contribute to its widespread use. Caffeine is a stimulant, and it does act as such, but using it as a supplemental, substitute, or primary medication for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, or any other mental illness  should be discussed with your doctor first.

Caffeine does help me stay focused, on task, driven, happier, and more "in the zone". I am too distractable without caffeine, so whether it's from coffee or some other source, I need it to concentrate.

For as long as I care about being productive, I'm gonna skip the decaf.



¹ Either Bipolar Disorder Type I during a Depressive Period or Episode or Bipolar Disorder Type II.

² Please note that this post and the information herein is based on personal experience and anecdotal in nature. It is not intended to substitute for medical or mental health advice.

³ I am not a licensed therapist, psychologist, registered dietitian, nutritionist or medical doctor. The views I express are mine alone, based on my own experiences, and should not be taken as medical or mental health advice. Please speak with a medical or mental health professional before making any changes to your diet, exercise, or daily routine.


Barclay, Rachel, Rena Goldman, “How Does Caffeine Affect ADHD?” Healthline Media. 27 Feb 2015. Web. 20 Aug 2016.  http://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/caffeine#Outlook6

Brice, C. F. & Smith, A. P. (2002) “Effects of caffeine on mood and performance: a study of realistic consumption.” Psychopharmacology. (Berlin), 164, 188–192. Cross Reference Web. 20 Aug 2016.

Finnegan, D. (2003) “The health effects of stimulant drinks.” Nutrition Bulletin, 28, 147–155. Cross Reference Web. 20 Aug 2016.

Lucas, Michel, PhD, RD; et. al.  “Coffee, Caffeine, and Risk of Depression Among Women,”JAMA Internal Medicine. Web. 20 Aug 2016.  http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1105943

Meredith, Steven E., Laura M. Juliano, John R. Hughes, Roland R. Griffiths.  “Caffeine Use Disorder: A Comprehensive Review and Research Agenda.”  Journal of Caffeine Reasearch. 2013 Sep; 3(3): 114–130.  Web.  20 Aug 2016.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3777290/

Winston, Anthony P., Elizabeth Hardwick, Neema Jaberi.   Neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine.  Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. Oct 2005, 11 (6) 432-439; DOI: 10.1192/apt.11.6.432, Web. 20 Aug 2016.  http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/11/6/432#ref-63

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