Caffeine is a drug, but Point Loma Nazarene University students may be surprised to find that this drug isn’t addictive.
“I definitely think I’m addicted to coffee. I have about three cups a day and if I don’t, I get the worst headache,” PLNU junior graphic design major Sierra Marshall says.
An unscientific survey revealed that PLNU students spend an average of $16 per week on coffee.
64 percent of PLNU students in the survey said they believe caffeine to be an addictive drug. Caffeine, however, may not fall under the category of addictive substances according to the psychological definition of addiction.
“There’s a difference between the popular definition of addiction and how people actually use that word, and how psychologist define it,” says Max Butterfield, a PLNU associate professor of psychology.
The psychological definition of addiction includes both psychological and physiological effects. “Caffeine doesn’t appear to create true addiction because it lacks some of those bodily states [physiological effects],” Butterfield says.
Some may argue that withdrawal and increased heart and respiratory rates are physiological effects of caffeine, but Butterfield says these are only addictive properties.
“It [addiction] has to create distress or some type of suffering in your life if you don’t have the thing [the addictive substance],” Butterfield says.
Symptoms such as headaches are the result of not having caffeine if a person regularly uses the substance, but it doesn’t cause true suffering, according to Butterfield. “Those headaches will go away very, very quickly and you will also gain your tolerance to caffeine really quickly again after using it.”
Whether or not caffeine is addictive poses the question: is this substance dangerous for college students?
“Caffeine, compared to other drugs, is not as severe,” says Butterfield. “Your body doesn’t anticipate it quite in the same way, so it doesn’t create that sense of need or desire that we psychologically experience [with addiction].”
College students may not be addicted to caffeine, but there are still health risks to consuming caffeine, according to Butterfield. Caffeine fights against a chemical in the brain known as adenosine that makes people sleep, according to Matthew Walker in his book, Why We Sleep.
“You can, however, artificially mute the sleep signal of adenosine by using a chemical that makes you feel more alert and awake: caffeine,” writes Walker. “Caffeine works by successfully battling with adenosine for the privilege of latching on to adenosine welcome sites–or receptors–in the brain.”
But this substance is persistent, according to Walker. “Caffeine has an average half-life of five to seven hours.” This means it takes the average person at least five hours to remove half of the caffeine from their system.
This can cause problems for college students who regularly drink caffeinated beverages, especially in the afternoons or evenings. “Sleep will not come easily or be smooth throughout the night as your brain continues its battle against the opposing force of caffeine,” writes Walker.
But caffeine is useful when trying to stay up to study, focus or improve academically. “A healthy amount of caffeine for you, whatever that is, does in fact help improve cognitive performance [and] makes you just a little bit sharper,” according to Butterfield.
“You should be prepared for a nasty consequence when your liver successfully evicts the caffeine from your system,” writes Walker. “A phenomenon commonly known as a ‘caffeine crash.’”