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When caffeine dependence affects quality of life

coffee3Caffeine use disorder: It's a thing. Maybe you follow your nose to a $5 cup of artisan coffee or perform a morning home-brew ritual and drink in moderation. Even if your fix comes from a six-pack of Nescafé 3in1, your habit wouldn't necessarily be considered a medical issue. An article in today's San Francisco Chronicle discusses what constitutes caffeine use disorder, its estimated rate of occurrence, and the comparatively small amount of research that's been published on it compared with data on the potential health benefits and risks of the drug.

Among the common side effects associated with caffeine misuse – not necessarily caffeine use disorder – are headaches. Erin Allday writes:

"We're not talking about cancer here. It's a quality-of-life issue," said [Robert Cowan, MD,] director of the Stanford Headache Program.

When he sees patients with chronic headaches, one of the first questions he asks is how much caffeine they consume. The caffeine doesn't necessarily cause the headaches, but the withdrawal can, and even going a few hours without a cup of coffee can cause some people intense pain.

The piece notes some warning signs that caffeine use could be approaching addiction:

"There are people who have chronic reflux, stomach acid pain, bleeding, hemorrhoids - all because of coffee. They're suffering a lot," said Keith Humphreys, [PhD,] a Stanford addiction expert. "But they try and they fail to stop."

Those people may be addicted to caffeine, he said. But he's loath to apply that label to most people who regularly use caffeine, even those who are physically dependent on it. For something to be considered an addiction, it needs to truly disruptive - causing problems in personal relationships, for example, or interfering with the ability to work.

Previously: Director of Stanford Headache Clinic answers your questions on migraines and headache disordersAsk Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about heart health and cardiovascular research and For new moms, coffee scores a point: Caffeine doesn’t seem to interfere with baby’s sleep in study
Photo by ibeeckmans

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