AA meetings, and recovery in general, have long been associated with coffee and cigarettes. One study of AA members in Nashville, Tennessee found that there is quite a bit of truth to this stereotype. The study found that 88.5 percent of AA members surveyed drank coffee daily, compared to about 64 percent of Americans overall. Additionally, the study found that nearly 57 percent of AA members smoked cigarettes, compared to about 14 percent of Americans overall. Clearly, smoking is bad. It kills about 480,000 people a year, compared to the approximate 88,000 people per year dying of alcohol-related causes. At least one study has even found that smoking is correlated with a higher risk of relapse. What about coffee, though? Is there reason to believe caffeine is bad for your recovery? It depends.
Coffee Might Be Helpful in Moderation
As with many foods and beverages, the research community can’t seem to make up its mind about whether coffee is good for you or not. Currently, the consensus seems to be that moderate coffee consumption–meaning four cups a day or less–is not harmful to most people and may even confer some moderate health benefits. Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, heart failure, stroke, type II diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, uterine and liver cancer, cirrhosis and gout might be potential benefits experienced from moderate coffee consumption. These are all diseases that substance use, especially alcohol use, increases your risk for, so moderate coffee consumption might offset that risk slightly. However, the effect doesn’t appear to be strong enough to justify drinking more coffee than you currently do.
Several studies have also found a link between higher coffee consumption and lower risk of depression. Since depression is a common challenge for people during their first year of recovery, coffee might help. However, as with the previously stated health benefits, the protection against depression is mild, so don’t depend on coffee to keep depression at bay.
The Source Matters
While studies show that caffeine in the form of coffee or tea is not harmful in moderation and may even have some mild health benefits, most experts agree that energy drinks should unequivocally be avoided. One issue is that a single energy drink may have the same amount of caffeine as several cups of coffee. Consequently, you can easily blow past the daily consumption of caffeine that is considered healthy. Energy drinks are also full of odd ingredients that aren’t well understood and may have unpredictable effects, especially when mixed together. Perhaps worst of all, energy drinks are typically loaded with sugar, which may cause blood sugar swings and lead to weight gain, increasing your risk of type II diabetes. Even in the short term, moderate amounts of sugar can crash your mood and impair your concentration. If you regularly consume energy drinks, making the switch to coffee is a good idea.
Be Sure You’re Not Self-Medicating
In the Nashville study cited above, most people reported that the reasons they drank coffee were related to feeling more alert, having more energy, and having a greater sense of wellbeing. Those are probably the same reasons most people would give for drinking coffee. However, it’s also important to consider whether you might be using caffeine as a means of self-medicating. As noted above, depression is common in the first year of recovery and it’s a common co-occurring condition with substance use issues. Symptoms typically include fatigue, sluggishness, depressed mood, and difficulty concentrating, among others. Caffeine may feel like a convenient way to treat these symptoms. If you find yourself drinking a lot of coffee, consider whether you have other symptoms of depression. Talk to your doctor or therapist if you think you might be depressed.
If You Have Anxiety Issues, Caffeine Probably Doesn’t Help
Anxiety is another mental health issue that commonly co-occurs with addiction. In fact, it might be the most common. Anxiety disorders include a number of conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, OCD, PTSD, panic disorder, and phobias. These are typically characterized by rapid heart rate, muscular tension, fast breathing, sweating, and heightened alertness. Interestingly enough, these are many of the same effects you get from caffeine. The strange thing about anxiety is that feeling the physical symptoms of anxiety can cause you to have an anxiety attack, even if there is nothing for you to be anxious about. If you are already anxious about something, having a stimulant in your system doesn’t help. Individuals that have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, or those that frequently feel tense and on edge, it might be a good idea to reduce or eliminate your caffeine consumption.
Caffeine Might Interfere With Sleep
Many studies have found that sleep is crucial for good mental health. Even a mild sleep deficit over the course of a week can lead to significant cognitive impairments, including poor attention, memory, and emotional regulation. Consequently, getting enough quality sleep is a crucial element of recovery from addiction. Unfortunately, many people struggle with insomnia and restlessness in the early months of recovery and caffeine may make this problem even worse. Caffeine has a half-life of four to six hours. Deciding to have a cup of coffee in the afternoon means that about a quarter of that caffeine–plus whatever is left from earlier in the day–will still be in your system at bedtime. Even if it doesn’t keep you awake, it may reduce the restfulness of your sleep. If you’ve had trouble sleeping, consider cutting back on caffeine or at least making noon a hard caffeine deadline.
As with any aspect of health and addiction recovery, the question of whether or not caffeine is OK in recovery largely depends on your specific circumstances. For most people, two or three cups of coffee a day is not a big deal. However, there’s not much to lose in choosing to take a break from caffeine altogether. At Steps Recovery Centers, we understand that everyone’s path to recovery is unique to them. As such, we work towards offering individualized support to our clients long after they graduate our treatment program. We aim to give our clients all the help they need to stay sober for good. To learn more about our alumni services, call us at 385-236-0931