Caffeine as a solution to depression?
February 19, 2018 7:34 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone suffering from depression found caffeine to be somewhat of a solution?

I've been going through various bouts of depression (as I am bi polar) and every morning when I wake up it's very hard for me to get my internal engine running etc as I feel like going back to bed as negative thoughts swirl through my head. Other than exercise, the only thing that seems to work is caffeine. Since I'm not a daily coffee drinker, the effects of this stimulant are very noticeable to me, as I have tons of energy and actually get my tasks and errands done which in effect obviously make me feel more positive. Socially as well I'm more outgoing and generally just more engaged with life. I don't want to take ssri's and the other natural supplements I've tried (Sam-E, st johns wart, litheum oratate, etc) simply didn't have any noticeable effect (or at least not as obvious as something like caffeine). My question is if anyone can chime in on any negatives of caffeine (as for me the positives way outweigh the negatives) however although the health benefits are greatly debated and have been for awhile) I'm more interested in any caffeine addicts out there who wish to warn me about long term daily caffeine use etc. I realize the more I utilize caffeine I'm going to need more and perhaps the effect will not be as obvious once I get accustomed to it, but I really can't fathom being depressed while taking caffeine. I realize this question isn't very concrete and specific, but I was just interested in the notion of caffeine being an antidote to general depression for someone having difficulties with productivity and a general sense of negative thoughts that are powerfully repetitive. I understand there is not "one" solution to something like depression (esp if you're bi polar) and I recognize the importance of having a supportive social structure, exercise, diet, etc but bottom line caffeine seems to alleviate my main issues of lack of energy/interest etc to the point where even if there are negative long term effects to come my way, the positives easily seem to overwhelm any possible negatives.

Thanks in advance to any replies!
posted by HonestAsian to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Tolerance is a hell of a thing. You seem to know this, but let me repeat: You will not get that same buzz for long, not with the same dose anyway. No way in hell*.

Coffee is delicious and amazing and many people are only half joking when they say it’s the only reason they wake up, but it’s absolutely not going to affect you the way it does now for long.

All that said: if moderate caffeine consumption subjectively helps you: knock yourself out, buy some nice gear, learn a bit about beans and brews, and have at it, just watch out for ever-increasing daily intake.

Good luck, and enjoy!

*some people have abnormal responses to certain drugs, and do not develop tolerance the same way most people do. But in my experience, those people don’t like those drugs, finding their effects unpleasant in even small doses. IANAD, YMMV.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:55 PM on February 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

1. You get acclimatized to coffee very quickly. You will soon arrive at a point where caffeinated is your baseline and you’ll find that yes, being depressed while caffeinated is very much possible.

2. Caffeine will wreck your sleep at a high enough dose. Rotten sleep is probably the worst thing that can happen to a depressed person as it turns into a vicious cycle easily (insomnia, low energy, more coffee, more insomnia, ad infinitum).

3. Coffee will jack up your anxiety levels like whoa.

Of course YMMV but this is my takeaway as a person prone to depressive episodes who also drinks coffee. I mean, coffee is fine and I love it, but it’s not a great way to medicate depression.
posted by The Toad at 7:55 PM on February 19, 2018 [8 favorites]

Yes. Caffeine works for me. I drink "only" 2 strong homemade cups a day, almost always in the morning. At times when I haven't been on antidepressants, I've drunk a lot more.

My current psychiatrist is not afraid of stimulants and put me on a high dose of Effexor + provigil, with some other stuff added in. This works better than anything else has.

That said, I have no experience with bipolar.
posted by 8603 at 8:01 PM on February 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Coffee is cheap and readily available and seems to be working for you. You can drink a hell of a lot of it and not really hurt yourself much. Enjoy! FWIW, I drink coffee daily, more when I'm feeling depressed. It is what gets me out of bed. I never escalated beyond 1-2 cups a day on a regular basis. It's not the caffeine so much anymore as it being a kind of self-care ritual.

Are you on meds for bipolar? I know one common philosophy in managing it is to make darn sure you're not going to be manic and to tolerate a bit of ongoing depression. So this is definitely something you can talk about with your prescribing physician and there are meds that might work better if you start having negative side effects from too much coffee or you develop a tolerance.
posted by momus_window at 8:44 PM on February 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I try to stick to 1-2c tea before noon, anecdotally I have less anxiety, develop less tolerance and the comedown isn't as harsh as with coffee. Varietals take differently. Yerba mate is strong and makes me jittery, black tea is just right, matcha is between the two... oolong, puerh, most greens are nice for a soft wakeup. At night, white or herbals. Love hibiscus, tangy and full of vitamin C. Try em!

If I do have coffee, it's one espresso early in AM from a nice shop. Generally espresso has less caffeine than brew coffee. And for god's sake don't get hooked on Starbucks, their beans are engineered to have superhigh amounts of caff. My depression is always better on a little caffeine and always worse on more than a cup or two of coffee a day... my moods start swinging, my sleep gets off and then I crash. I've gone without for months at a time but I never feel quite myself.

See my unusual experience with coffee from a previous AskMe on coffee dependence.
posted by fritillary at 8:55 PM on February 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I never found caffeine to be directly helpful in treating my (unipolar) depression. I do find it to be indirectly supportive of general mental well-being, in the sense that purchasing and preparing good-quality coffee and tea for myself is an easy and relatively inexpensive form of pleasure and self-care.

I also strictly limit myself to two cups of coffee per day (or the nominal equivalent in tea), generally one in the morning and one in the early afternoon, because I find it very addictive and very easy to build up a tolerance. My experience with caffeine gives me some understanding of addiction as a sense of "I need to take this drug just to feel normal". I can't go a day without it before the sluggishness and pounding, miserable headache set in. I once tried tapering off consumption over the course of a month and still couldn't muster the willpower to give it up entirely.

If you find that moderate caffeine consumption helps support positive mood I don't see why you shouldn't continue with it. Light to moderate consumption of coffee and tea is generally considered healthful (caffeinated sodas and sweetened drinks not so much). It's legal, socially acceptable, not terribly expensive, not going to cause a DUI, etc. Some people find that coffee irritates the digestion, in which case tea might be a better choice. Be mindful of effects on sleep timing and quality, and of steadily increasing consumption. Otherwise, if it works it works.
posted by 4rtemis at 8:57 PM on February 19, 2018

Be mindful of the post-caffeine crash. I had one of those that was particularly intense once and I don’t wish to repeat the experience.
posted by delight at 9:03 PM on February 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

In periods where I am really depressed a morning routine of a walk to get coffee helps me a lot, due to the awesome depression-fighting combo of:
1. Getting out of bed and dressed
2. Leaving the house and being outside
3. Getting physical activity
4. Bit of a caffeine boost
5. Having a routine

I recommend a daily limit though, and ideally if you don't do it every day the tolerance may not set in in the same way. Watch out for anxiety as discussed above.
posted by lookoutbelow at 9:03 PM on February 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

The thing about caffeine is is that it balances you up on a narrow ridge of goodness, but can easily push you down the hill of anxiety. Stick to one big or two small cups, before noon, and you'll be just fine.

Also, it's not just about caffeine, a lot of the thing about morning coffee that kicks your brain into gear also comes from encountering something warm and pleasant as soon as you wake up to remind you that the world is not all bad and some things are good.
posted by bleep at 9:18 PM on February 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh! And make sure to eat with your coffee.
posted by bleep at 9:19 PM on February 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I started consuming way too much caffeine way too early in life, and am hopelessly addicted to it. My withdrawal symptoms are especially severe; they're flu-like and not fun. A few attempts at giving up caffeine in the past few years have ended in various types of failure. Without coffee, my depressive symptoms are much, much worse.

On the recent occasions that I gave up caffeine and then resumed using it, I felt awesome — but only for the first few days after I started drinking coffee again. The awesome feelings faded, and I was essentially just normal again, or at least whatever is normal for me. That feeling you write about, where you cannot fathom being depressed while using caffeine ... it's not something that I think is realistic.

If you do a search on Google Scholar, you'll turn up some papers and review articles showing that people who consume a couple cups of coffee per day are less likely to report depression than those who do not. But I don't think any research demonstrates a causal relationship. One paper reported that "daily coffee drinking had a J-shaped association with the risk of suicide ... among heavy coffee drinkers (≥ 8 cups/day) the risk of suicide was 58% higher compared with more moderate drinkers."
posted by compartment at 9:30 PM on February 19, 2018

I've had an on-again, off-again relationship with coffee. The ritual of brewing and act of drinking are positive acts in the day, but the effects were not great.

At my peak, I was having 6 shots of espresso and a couple of cups per day.

Eventually I cut down to a few cups.

Now I only drink when extremely sleep deprived- less than 2 cups a month. Caffeine cranks my anxiety to uncomfortable levels. My mental stability is far better without caffeine.
posted by Giggilituffin at 9:52 PM on February 19, 2018

Caffeine is borrowing energy from the future. At some point you have to repay the energetic debt.
If you think about it that way and use it cautiously then it's a useful tool. But when abused oh man you will feel like reheated shit every morning at 7am.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:23 PM on February 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

Caffiene tolerance can develop really really quickly (after 1 to 4 days of use, depending on the person) after which you'd need coffee just to maintain your normal level of functioning and avoid potential withdrawal symptoms (eg. fatigue, anxiety, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating). I would guess if you want to keep the benefits you've been getting and avoid developing tolerance you should probably use it no more than a few days a week, and not on consecutive days.

The American Food & Drug Administration recommends healthy adults consume no more than 400mg of caffeine a day. Brewed coffee can have 100-200mg of caffeine per 250ml, so ideally try not to drink more than ~500ml of coffee a day (for reference a single Starbucks Venti size brewed coffee is 590ml and has 415mg of caffeine).

Caffeine also has a half life of about 6 hours (as in, drink that Starbucks Venti and 6 hours later your body will only have managed to eliminate half of that 415mg of caffeine ). Studies have shown that even if you stop drinking coffee 6 hours before bedtime you will still lose an average of an hour of sleep and the quality of sleep you do get will be affected. Do your coffee drinking as early in the day as you can and ideally not after noon.

Every individual will process caffeine slightly differently obviously, but some unexpected things can affect your ability to process caffeine: using hormonal birth control may mean caffeine will linger in your body much longer than normal. Might want to do some research to see how any medications or supplements you're taking may interact with caffeine.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 10:30 PM on February 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

Excessive caffeine consumption can trigger or exacerbate manic episodes. Using stimulants like this of any variety, OTC or otherwise, is something you should not be doing with bipolar disorder without the supervision of a psychiatrist and loved ones who can tell you if your behavior is altering in ways that are going to be a problem. The way that you're phrasing a lot of this in particular, like how you "can't fathom being depressed" when using it, suggests to me that this is something you should only be doing with the supervision of a mental health care provider.

Energy and social engagement are great, but manic or hypomanic periods are not good times for you to be evaluating objectively whether there are negative drawbacks to those good feelings, you know? It's unfortunately a condition that makes you the worst person to determine if you're okay. Trying to do this one DIY could have serious long-term negative effects on your life, and this is a bad area to just be experimenting with substances, even substances that are generally safe for people without bipolar disorder.
posted by Sequence at 11:02 PM on February 19, 2018 [9 favorites]

Too much caffeine when I was a teenager made a psychiatrist think I was bipolar when I was really just alternating between depressed and over-caffeinated. When I quit drinking Mountain Dew all day every day, my "manic" symptoms disappeared. So be careful you don't overdo it and trigger a manic episode.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:46 AM on February 20, 2018

seconding Jacqueline. I am a steady coffee addict (as in, I have the same moderate amount every day but heaven help me if I skip a day), and yes, I do find that when I am in a depressed state the coffee provides a small lift -- just enough to make sure I do my work and take a shower, that sort of thing.

However, my partner finds that depending on where he's at, mentally/emotionally, even a very very small amount of caffeine can tip him over into mania. If he's definitely nowhere near manic, a full cup of coffee just gives him a nice caffeine buzz. But if he's having a rough time or hasn't slept or (ESPECIALLY) hasn't eaten, he'll be rapid-fire talking and spiraling halfway through a latte.

So yeah, be mindful of your state, don't drink it late in the day when it can screw with your sleep, always get some food in you.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:37 AM on February 20, 2018

May 31 1984 was the last day I smoked a cigarette. The next day, June 1 1984, I was sitting around a table with a couple of buddies, drinking coffee, and just as natural as can be I reached over and grabbed a cigarette from the pack my buddy had laying on the table. And then I noticed what I was doing. I found that, for me, drinking coffee = smoking cigarettes.

I really, really wanted to not smoke anymore, not ever again, and I found out that doing so meant not only no coffee but also all others sources of caffeine. No tea. No sodas. No nothing at all if it had caffeine in it. I held to that for right at a decade, then, in San Francisco with my lover at the time, we were driving somewhere in the rain and the gloom and the cold of that late afternoon, she asked me please to pull over and she ran into a starbux and grabbed a coffee, and it smelled so. damn. good. And it was so goddamn cold in SF, and so wet, and so gray, and so drear, and I got out of that car and got a coffee for my very own self. Game. On.


I've got this manic depression thing going also, and I suppose it could be said that when I slam that iced coffee it shoots me hypo-manic. I do not know. I do know that I feel festive. I know that I feel lots better. I know that the day is going to turn out fine. It is my habit to drink iced coffee as I meditate; it seems to hold me closer to the intention of sitting in silence.


I damn sure wouldn't say that caffeine is a solution to depression, much less manic depression. I take serious psychiatric medications to address that, a mood stabilizer and an anti-depressant, an anti-anxiety medication also. I am as grateful as I know how to be for the fine men and women who have formulated these drugs, I am as grateful as I know how to be to the doctors who would not give up on me, who were determined to help me find my way through the maze toward medications that work for me. I know that I am very fortunate* to have been able to find medications to help me with this -- it took long years of trying this medication, that medication, the other medication. In late 2003 I finally found a mood stabilizer which works well plus it doesn't have horror show side effects. Almost immediately after that I found an anti-depressant to lift the bottom of the depression. And I've stayed with those two medications since that time.
*I know a guy who also suffers this manic depression thing, he has *not* been able to find medications to help him with it. I watch him stagger through life, it's actually painful to watch this fine person suffer as he does; I absolutely remember what it was like to not have reached medicinal armistice with this son-of-a-bitching illness.


So it's not a medication. It's just something that brings happiness, a luxury at a price I can afford. A fun lift. I can certainly do without it -- I quit all caffeine for a decade after finding out how closely it was tied to my being able to set cigarettes down -- now that is a serious addiction, that tobacco thing is. A killer. It took the life of a decades long friend, a man who had mentored me, who really cared about me, and I about him. Worse than his death were the last two years of his life, which were just flat-out hell, carting an oxygen tank around, weak, broken, scared; death was a mercy, really. Coffee isn't going to do that to me, or to you.


I love espresso, and that thick layer of crema is probably the best thing in the land of coffee. But crema is just packed *full* of bad-guy cholesterol, and I have to really stay away from that bad cholesterol. So I only drink espresso once in a while, the rest of the time I drink coffee that's been run through a paper filter, which catches the best part and leaves it to be tossed into the trash. A sadness, that is.


The funniest book I have ever read about coffee is Memoir From Antproof Case by Mark Helprin. The whole book is told from the perspective of a old man looking back over his life, and this guy is totally obsessed with his hatred for coffee, his contempt for coffee drinkers, for anything even somewhat related to coffee. Helprin has this character going off on these wild rants, it's just funny as hell, and a great story overall, to boot.


Anyways. If coffee brings you a measure of happiness, enjoy it. Life is short, life is awfully broad but it's awfully short, too. Coffee may not be totally innocuous but it's no death threat. Find your limit and stay this side of it.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:15 PM on February 20, 2018

People above mentioned the withdrawal symptoms of caffeine as flu-like symptoms, fatigue, lack of focus, etc.

For my husband and I both, if we miss our dose of caffeine, it leads to a strong headache every time. I've read this is a common withdrawal symptom and supposedly it's one of the reasons some headache remedies like Excedrin include caffeine (that is, because some people's headaches are caused by caffeine withdrawal but they don't realize that's the problem).

So withdrawal could be worse than just a bit of a downer. It can be really painful. My caffeine-withdrawal headaches feel different from my other headaches (caffeine withdrawal starts as a pain at the back of my head, for whatever reason) and they can get bad enough to completely knock me out for the day. So... the maintenance factor is something to keep in mind. Anecdotally, it seems like the more you use daily, the worse the headaches when you miss or even just slightly delay your dose.
posted by wiremommy at 1:37 PM on February 20, 2018

For me, as with some others here, there's a happy medium. Too much coffee wrecks me. But I've been a daily coffee drinker for 20+ years, and for the first 6--7 years of that I would take occasional breaks, partially just to confirm the anti-depressant effects. I have a good sense of where the line is; if I have 24 oz. a day I don't get into the weird depressive cycle that I experience without coffee.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:49 PM on February 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Obligatory: Toni Price -- Too Much Coffee
posted by dancestoblue at 2:47 PM on February 20, 2018

Whether caffeine is helpful/harmless/ harmful seems very likely to be genetic.

23andme tests (or used to) whether you are a fast or slow coffee metabolizer.

(I was very gratified to see that I'm a fast caffeine metabolizer because people have lectured me for years about drinking too much coffee too late in the day but I have also lived in my body for many years and known firsthand that I can have an espresso after dinner and sleep just fine, or go from drinking 4 coffees a day to zero and not miss it. One size does not fit all).
posted by mrmurbles at 6:09 PM on February 20, 2018

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