Caffeine Withdrawal is a Mental Disorder

The release of the new DSM-5 – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – has kicked up a firestorm of headlines and commentary online and elsewhere for its inclusion of a number of controversial “mental disorders,” which includes caffeine intoxication and caffeine withdrawal. Yes, that’s right. According to the DSM-5, your coffee habit could cause a temporary mental disorder. So could putting an abrupt end to your usual amount of caffeine consumption.

It’s not the first time that caffeine has made it onto the list of diagnosed mental disorders. Caffeine intoxication was actually listed in the DSM-IV, the last iteration of the diagnostic manual. Caffeine withdrawal, on the other hand, is a new addition to the list of supposed mental disorders in the DSM-5.

Most of the headlines discussing the additions to the DSM have poked fun at the idea of including caffeine intoxication and caffeine withdrawal as actual mental disorders, suggesting that coffee drives you crazy or asking if coffee gets you drunk. Even psychologists and psychiatrists found it hard to take the new diagnoses seriously. Robin Rosenberg, the co-author of the psych textbook “Abnormal Psychology,” has noted that she doesn’t understand why either caffeine intoxication or caffeine withdrawal is included in the DSM.

Interestingly, Alan Budney, who helped define the list of substance-use disorders, called the decision to include caffeine withdrawal on the list as “one of the more controversial issues faced by our work group.”

Even so, the group felt that it caffeine intoxication and caffeine withdrawal are prevalent enough that they should be taken seriously – though he doesn’t define what “taken seriously” should look like. He does note, however, that caffeine withdrawal can affect your sleep, work and other aspects of your life. The symptoms include headache, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and depressed mood.

Caffeine intoxication can also be serious, causing restlessness, nervousness, excitement, upset stomach, rambling speech, rapid heartbeat, sleeplessness and a number of other physical and behavioral symptoms. If a person experiences five or more of the symptoms during or shortly after consuming caffeine, and if it causes distress or impairs his ability to function, he could be diagnosed with caffeine intoxication.

Budney noted that caffeine is “invading our society more and more.” While we think of it mostly in association with coffee, it’s also found in tea and chocolate, and is added to many different products, from energy drinks to headache medication. It is the most commonly used behaviorally and psychologically active drug in the world. Its stimulant effects make it a popular performance-enhancing drug – the afternoon pick-me-up of choice for anyone who needs more focus or a burst of energy. In high enough doses, though, especially in combination with other drugs, it can harm people, or even kill them. In 2011, nearly 21,000 people in the U.S. visited the emergency room for treatment related to caffeine-infused energy drinks. In almost 60 percent of those cases, caffeine was the only drug involved.

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