Coffee and Anxiety

October 8th, 2021 / Lifestyle Medicine

America is seemingly fueled by coffee, and caffeine is probably the most socially acceptable and widely used psychoactive substance on the planet—but at what price? I enjoy the occasional cup of coffee as well as the next gal, but I also know that caffeine stimulates the adrenal glands to secrete the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) at about double the dose (in one study) as in those not ingesting any caffeine. This amping up of stress hormones can increase the perception of stress and actually decrease performance while potentially over-stressing the adrenal glands, which produce cortisol and epinephrine.

I know some of you will argue with me. You love your relaxing morning cup of coffee! I hear you. I also know many of you rely on coffee as a cognitive or physical performance enhancer and mood booster (the “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee” attitude). While some research shows that moderate caffeine intake (at less than 6 cups a day but yikes, I would put that max at 2 cups!) has been associated with a temporary cognitive boost, higher doses have been shown to induce anxiety symptoms, as well as, in rarer cases, psychotic and manic symptoms. 

People who already have a panic disorder or an anxiety disorder seem to be particular sensitive to this negative effect from caffeine and I would advise them, along with those who already have cardiovascular problems, sleep issues, substance use problems, or who are adolescents or younger, to avoid caffeine completely. It’s just not worth the risk. For some great alternatives to caffeine, check out my Coffee Substitutes That Give You Real Energy blog.

Coffee Substitutes That Give You Real Energy

Most people I know drink coffee for the energy boost, but caffeine is what I call an “energy crutch” because it doesn’t actually address the lack of energy in the first place. It props up your flagging energy but it doesn’t fix the problem. In fact, over time, caffeine causes energy depletion because it stresses your adrenal glands, which produce stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). Caffeine is addictive and your body doesn’t actually need that crutch. What it needs is a boost.

Things that actually boost your energy instead of artificially elevating it briefly will not just feel good in the moment but build your energy stores over time. The next time you’re tempted to grab a cup of joe and keep on working, consider any of these 5 legitimate energy boosters instead:

  • Go for a walk. A brisk 10-minute walk outside can be more energizing and mood-boosting than even the fanciest Frappuccino.
  • 20-minute catnap. Longer naps can make you groggy but 20 minutes is the sweet spot for midday rejuvenation. 
  • Yoga moments. You don’t have to do a full routine or a class. My favorite energy-generating pose is Warrior 2. [OPPORTUNITY FOR VISUAL?] As you hold this pose, breathe deeply and imagine breathing in all the power and energy of a warrior!
  • Astralagus. I rely on this herb when I need to shore up my energy without a crash. It’s one of the fundamental herbs in Chinese medicine. 
  • Panax Ginseng. This is my other favorite Chinese herb for energy. It supports the adrenal glands and is also great for blood sugar control.

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