If you are like many of the women I see in my medical hormone practice, you may be confused about whether caffeine is a good or harmful substance to consume. It’s commonly found in coffee, nonherbal teas, many sodas, chocolate, energy drinks (such as Red Bull), and ma huang or ephedra used in weight loss supplements, and has been used by humans for thousands of years. But is it good for your body and mind?

For most, caffeine may increase feelings of energy temporarily. The good news is that caffeine promotes mental clarity, focus, wakefulness and, at times, social interaction. It triggers an increase in dopamine, a feel-good chemical in the brain, but also causes cortisol and other stress hormones to rise as well.

A little bit of caffeine may be useful for some but if you don’t metabolize it well, it may be causing you problems. I frequently see midlife women progressively increasing their caffeine consumption over time to help cope with their very hectic lifestyles and then it can become a problem. A one cup of coffee a day habit becomes two or three and then the dependency and problems can start. Caffeine can worsen chronic anxiety and irritability as women approach menopause. Large amounts of caffeine can make symptoms of insomnia, inflammation, fatigue, PMS, heartburn and breast tenderness worse.

As women enter their 40s, many begin to have fluctuating female hormone levels or develop hypothyroidism and may feel more fatigued. They may develop sleep issues and report difficulty both falling and staying asleep, or they may report poor quality of sleep and awaken feeling tired and as if they did not sleep at all. They feel tired but wired. The caffeine may have contributed to their sleep issues so they wake up exhausted and then have more caffeine to help their fatigue. Certainly there are many reasons one may not sleep well, but caffeine can certainly play a major role.

I believe that caffeine tolerance relates in large part to how well a woman is able to detoxify her caffeine. In my experience, even moderate caffeine intake can cause problems for three types of women:

  1. Women who are experiencing adrenal dysfunction (for more information on this, please refer to my recent article in the November 2014 Northeast Wisconsin edition of Nature’s Pathways: http://bit.ly/10rPGVO)
  2. Women who are insulin resistant and do not get adequate energy from their food
  3. Women who are slow detoxifiers

So could you be addicted? Answer yes or no to the following questions:

  • Do you have to have caffeine soon after getting up in the morning daily?
  • Do you use caffeine to stimulate a physical activity such as concentrating, exercising, having a bowel movement or staying awake?
  • Do you crash and have caffeine or sugar cravings later in the afternoon?
  • Do you develop a headache if you miss your usual dose?
  • Do you become irritable if you miss your usual dose?
  • Are you having trouble sleeping — both falling and staying asleep — and wake feeling tired?
  • Do you use caffeine to increase the effects of other substances such as nicotine, sugar or alcohol?
  • Do you feel your social life would suffer or change without caffeine use?
  • Does the idea of not having caffeine seem impossible to you?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions it is a good idea to consider going off caffeine and see how you feel.

Try to limit or avoid all caffeine if you are having insomnia or have any withdrawal symptoms such as headaches if you miss your usual dose. If you do have caffeine, savor it and enjoy it in small amounts slowly as a treat and not in large quantities. Cut back slowly; decrease your usual amount of caffeine by ¼ every three to four days, and increase your water consumption at the same time. Go to bed earlier and try to get at least eight hours of sleep per night. Eat a high protein breakfast (with 20-25 grams of protein) and increase your optimal nutrition levels with food plus a high quality multivitamin and mineral supplement.

The bottom line is you never know the power caffeine has over you until you try to eliminate it for a period of time and see — you might just begin to feel better!