Here's Why Coffee Makes You Anxious—and How to Calm the Jitters, According to an RDN

Strike the right balance between drinking too much and just enough coffee (if you don’t want to give it up entirely).

<p>Tanja Ivanova / Getty Images</p>

Tanja Ivanova / Getty Images

Whether you sip it with a friend, gulp it down on your morning commute, or grab a cup on a cold day, for many of us, coffee is a non-negotiable part of daily life. In fact, many people feel like they can’t function until they’ve had their first cup of the day.

Moderate coffee consumption has some surprisingly positive health benefits, mainly due to coffee’s vitamin, mineral, and polyphenol content. But there’s one major drawback to drinking coffee: the caffeine. Those beans can certainly provide that much-needed, caffeinated pick-me-up, but since caffeine is a stimulant that can influence the nervous system, it can bring with it some serious anxiety. What is it about coffee that makes you feel anxious? If you’re not interested in giving up your morning cold brew, but want to avoid the coffee-triggered anxiety that always follows, here’s how to lessen its effects and feel less jittery.

Related: How Much Caffeine Is in a Shot of Espresso?

Coffee Has Many Beneficial Properties

Coffee is filled with oxidative-stress-fighting compounds, and studies have found that a regular cup of joe is associated with a lower risk of mortality and cardiovascular disease, a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and is a good source of magnesium.

Interestingly, drinking just enough coffee may actually decrease stress and anxiety. "Some research has shown that habitual intake of one to two cups a day of caffeinated coffee can actually mitigate the stress response," says Lina Begdache, PhD, RDN, CDN, CNS-S, FAND, registered dietitian nutritionist, certified nutrition specialist-scholar, and associate professor at Binghamton University, State University of New York. "Caffeine at low doses seems to ‘train the brain to handle stress’ and leads to the release of dopamine, a ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter that supports motivation and several cognitive functions."

Related: When Is the Best Time to Drink Coffee—And How Late Is Too Late?

Does Coffee Really Cause or Worsen Anxiety?

Is your morning mug of coffee ultimately to blame for that nervous tension you feel? The answer could be a resounding "yes"—if you’re drinking a lot of it. "Yes, caffeinated coffee can add to the stress response and anxiety when consumed in large doses—more than four [8 ounce] cups a day," Begdache says.

She explains that caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, and large doses will overstimulate the nervous system. This is why it can be helpful to keep your caffeinated beverage consumption in check.

Additionally, according to Begdache, since caffeine is a stimulant it can lead to the release of glutamate, an "excitatory neurotransmitter." "Glutamate acts like a gas pedal on the neurons, so they fire at a higher frequency," she says. "This translates into overactive thinking and hyperactivity."

Since caffeine has an impact on the body’s stress response, your system releases cortisol and adrenaline when you drink coffee. The function of these stress hormones is to prepare the body for the flight and fight response, Begdache explains. "Therefore, heartbeat and pulse rate increase, among many other [physiological responses]," she says, adding that to test whether caffeine is affecting your stress response, you can check your pulse at rest after drinking coffee and compare it to a baseline.

Caffeine also inhibits GABA release, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps with feelings of calmness. "The brain requires a balance between glutamate and GABA to modulate the release of other neurotransmitters," Begdache says. "Losing that balance leads to negative effects on mood."

Related: Should You Drink Coffee Before Bed? The Answer Might Surprise You

Coffee Affects People Differently

While Begdache says it typically takes more than four cups of coffee to experience those negative effects on anxiety, some people seem to feel very anxious after only drinking one cup. In this case, Begdache says, "some evidence suggests that variations in certain genes (the ADORA2A and CYP1A2 genes) that control fatigue and metabolize caffeine, respectively, are responsible for the anxiogenic effect of caffeine."

In other words, your genes might simply be wired to make you feel more wired after even a small cup of coffee. In this case, our best bet may be to switch to decaf or try a less-caffeinated or non-caffeinated tea.

Related: Matcha vs. Coffee: Which One Has More Caffeine (and Health Benefits)?

What to Do if You Don’t Want to Give Up Coffee

Begdache cautions that daily use of caffeine leads to dependence, which means that people need their dose of caffeine to function. "It also has an addictive property, which means if you stop taking it, you may experience withdrawal effects," she says.

Coffee (and other caffeine sources) is a staple part of most people’s days. If the idea of giving it up entirely sounds completely unappealing to you, know that you might feel better simply drinking less of it. Cutting back without totally cutting it out might be the move for you.

"Although it may sound counterintuitive, it could be good to lower your caffeine baseline and keep it at a low-moderate dose so you reap the benefits without the negative effects," Begdache says. "Slowly lower the amount of coffee you drink every day. Leave out one-quarter of the cup every two to three days to achieve the desired dose. This way, you avoid having withdrawal symptoms."

Drinking coffee on an empty stomach may make the stress and anxiety response more pronounced for you. Nutrition experts also recommend drinking coffee after eating something, or at least mixed with some fat- and protein-rich milk to keep these stress hormones under control.

You may find that much of your coffee drinking was due to ingrained habits or the pleasurable ritual of preparing, sipping, and sharing it with friends. So maybe you’ll start to make your second or third cup decaf without sacrificing a thing!

Related: The 10 Healthiest Teas to Drink on a Daily Basis

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