When Should You Start To Worry About Your Coffee Habit?

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Update: More good news for coffee lovers! A new study, published today in the journal Circulation, suggests that between three and five cups of coffee per day can actually prevent premature death due to heart disease, Parkinson's, and diabetes.

This article was originally published on November 10, 2015.

Unlike lip balm or cheese, coffee is one of the few things we jokingly say we're "addicted" to that we truly can become dependent on. But is that really such a bad thing?

In the past, coffee research has been a little bit all over the place: One minute it seems like the stuff is going to save your life; the next minute, it's going to kill you. For instance, research suggests coffee can protect against heart disease, liver cancer, and Alzheimer's. But then, it also raises blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And of course, drinking it too close to bedtime can wreak havoc on your sleep, setting you up for even more problems.

Lucky for coffee drinkers, the solid evidence that coffee is healthy is starting to outweigh its less-than-stellar indications. In fact, earlier this year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — our country's top nutrition panel — recommended that people drink between three and five cups of coffee (without too much extra milk or sugar, that is) per day.

That said, drinking caffeine consistently can definitely do a number on our brains. We can build up a tolerance, which causes us to require more and more of the stuff to feel the same effects. And we often show signs of dependence, including withdrawal symptoms — fatigue, headaches, irritability, etc. — if we don't get our cup on time. Tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal are all parts of an addiction. But they aren't everything that goes into it.

Which is why caffeine withdrawal is listed as an actual disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), but caffeine addiction is not. And it's worth noting that caffeine withdrawal only counts as a disorder if it's significantly impacting your life — like if you're getting in fights with coworkers due to the lack of coffee at your office. Not a great sign.

But the good news is that even if you're feeling beholden to the coffee gods, a study published recently in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that treating caffeine dependency isn't particularly difficult. In the study, 33 people who had been ingesting an average of 666 mg of caffeine per day (equivalent to about seven cups of coffee) attended just one session of cognitive behavioral therapy. Afterwards, they got three quick follow-up appointments just to make sure they were still on track. By the end of the study, they were able to reduce their coffee consumption by 77% — to under 200 mg per day.

Although coffee obviously isn't as addictive or damaging as, say, heroin, that doesn't mean it's harmless. But there's no reason to feel guilty about indulging in the delicious brew in moderation.
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