kikovi/ShutterstockNo longer getting a hit from your morning cuppa? Missing the burst of energy you used to get after your afternoon latte? While you can still get the health benefits of coffee like improved memory and protection from dementia, you might have built up a caffeine tolerance.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recommends that healthy adults consume no more than 400mg caffeine per day—that’s the equivalent of four 8-oz cups of coffee per day. However, coffee, tea, and soda are not our only sources of caffeine. Chocolate, energy drinks, ice cream, weight-loss supplements, and pain relief medications may all contain caffeine. (Find out how much caffeine is in your favorite coffee.)
“I often say caffeine can be a ‘drug in a mug’,” says Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT. “Caffeine stimulates your brain’s attention and concentration centers while acting as a receptor to a brain signaling molecule called adenosine. Adenosine is a substance that can make you feel tired, which builds up during the day and eventually dissipates while you sleep. Essentially, your body thinks caffeine molecules are binding to the parts of the brain where adenosine would normally attach to, causing increased alertness after drinking that cup of coffee. The downside to constant repeated exposure to caffeine causes the adenosine receptors to be less responsive to caffeine, and even develop more adenosine receptors, begging for more caffeine intake. It’s this decrease in sensitivity that leads to caffeine tolerance.”
Some research has shown that caffeine tolerance can develop in as little as one to four days, but Enright stresses that caffeine tolerance varies by individual. “Some people have genetic factors that cause caffeine to metabolize more quickly than others,” she explains. “Differences in weight can influence caffeine tolerance—the higher the weight, the more likely they are to have a higher tolerance. Smoking can cause caffeine to be metabolized twice as fast.”
If you have a low caffeine tolerance, you’ll know all about it. Common symptoms are headaches, anxiety, jitters, lack of focus, racing heart, palpitations, and irritability. But if you have caffeine tolerance, you typically won’t ever experience these symptoms, explains Enright. (Or you’ll have to consume a lot of caffeine to do so.) Here’s what else happens to your body when you drink coffee every day.
However, symptoms of caffeine tolerance are far more subtle. “Initially, you will notice that you don’t quite get that same burst of energy, alertness, and focus as you did when you first started drinking coffee,” says Enright. “You find you need more coffee to have the same effects. And when the caffeine starts to wear off, headaches may occur instead.”
How to Get Your Buzz Back
The good news for all you coffee lovers is that you don’t have to cut coffee out entirely. In fact, this is not recommended, particularly if you usually drink large amounts every day. “Withdrawal symptoms can include headaches, increased heart rate, anxiety, and irritability,” says Enright.
The key to avoiding building up a caffeine tolerance is “cycling” your intake, which means if you drink a high amount one day, reduce your intake on other days. “For example, instead of drinking four cups of coffee every day, have four cups one day, two cups the next, then one cup the next day, then none—or go back up to four cups if that is your preference,” suggests Enright. She also recommends making sure you don’t skip meals, as this can lead to low energy levels, and ultimately trigger that urge to reach for an additional cup of caffeine to get a boost of energy. Avoid drinking coffee on an empty stomach, which can also cause your hunger receptors to be blocked, leading to decreased intake of energy-containing calories, and drink coffee with a meal instead to slow absorption and increase energy levels from food. (Here are seven signs you’re drinking too much coffee.)