Dr. Samuel A. Ball of Yale University—a professor of psychiatry and also the president and CEO of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse—wants you to know that you’re not really addicted to coffee.
Yes, he says, you love your coffee. You really, really love it. And if you give it up, you may feel lousy and suffer from signs of withdrawal. People report everything from headaches to lethargy to lack of concentration to depression to muscle pain to constipation when they give up the daily cup o’ joe.
But Ball says that’s because coffee lovers are physiologically dependent on caffeine—and he would like to inform you that physiological dependency is not the singular burden of proof when talking about addiction.
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of drug dependence, there are four criteria that must be met to constitute actual addiction: “withdrawal symptoms, development of tolerance over time to the effects, use of the substance in spite of aggravation of medical or mental problems, [and] repeated unsuccessful attempts at quitting.” And although caffeine is the world’s most widely used psychoactive drug—and even though, in the US, more than 80 percent of adults consume the equivalent of about two cups of coffee per day—experts disagree about whether you can or cannot be addicted to it.
Some researchers say coffee addiction is, in fact, a real thing. A 1994 study that appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association and was sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that a small percentage of coffee drinkers are true addicts. In that study, one participant couldn’t even drag herself to work when she was suffering from caffeine withdrawal. Another called off her kid’s birthday party due to lack of coffee, and a pregnant woman went to a store while in active labor to buy caffeinated soda.
On a similar note, when MUNCHIES reached out to Dr. Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, he told us “I do not agree with Dr. Ball,” and pointed to two reviews he co-headed on caffeine use disorder and caffeine withdrawal, respectively.
Still, Professor Ball told Business Insider that although “Americans and many people in other countries love coffee,” real addiction truly messes up your life—coffee dependency doesn’t. “Addiction is a really specific sort of brain disorder,” he said. What’s different about your attachment to coffee is that you probably don’t “have major consequences because of your use and despite those consequences, you continue to use and engage in that behavior.”
What’s more, people don’t “become significantly preoccupied with the use” of coffee to the extent that coffee drinking “becomes the all-consuming focus of their lives to the detriment of their family, their friends, their jobs and all their other interests.”
Dr. John F. Kelly, a professor of psychiatry in addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School, seems to agree with Ball’s assertion. He told us that coffee “doesn’t cause intoxication and psychological impairment, and also, addiction is defined in large part by continued use despite harmful consequences—and caffeine doesn’t produce harmful consequences.”
Yes, Ball says, caffeine is in the same category as nicotine, cocaine, and methamphetamine—all stimulants that you can become physiologically dependent on. And you may experience withdrawal if you stop drinking coffee.
“But that’s not the same really as calling it an addiction, because you don’t have these significant negative consequences. You don’t have this focus on coffee to the extent of work, friendships, family.”
Maybe Dr. Ball just hasn’t met those of us who are truly hardcore. After all, it takes a certain sort of sweaty desperation to find yourself rummaging through a Starbucks dumpster in the middle of the night in search of discarded coffee grounds to suck upon. Or so a friend told us.