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Is caffeine addictive?

Intrigued by a study released in the UK last month in which caffeine was shown to improve concentration and reduce workplace mistakes among workers, I wrote an article for which I interviewed experts about caffeine's effects on the brain, its potential dangers, and its ever-increasing popularity with ever-younger people.

A debate is raging among coffee and energy-drink consumers, the medical community and the media about whether caffeine is officially addictive.

Dr. Harold Urschel, chief medical strategist of the Dallas-based addiction-management company, author of Healing the Addicted Brain, and fellow Psychology Today blogger, told me:

"Caffeine is quite addictive in the sense that it is a psychoacive substance. It stimulates certain chemical systems in the brain and this keeps you awake. If you use it on a daily basis, you develop a tolerance, just as you would to pain pills or other drugs. After a while, you need more and more to produce the same effects. Unfortunately, along with waking you up, caffeine also makes you agitated, irritated, and anxious - and those effects increase along with your daily dosage of caffeine. You get acclimated to caffeine's wake-up aspect, but never to its agitation, irritation, and anxiety aspects."

These effects are even more extreme in people with anxiety disorders or clinical depression, Urschel said.

"We're not sure why at this point, but whatever caffeine does in the brain makes the symptoms of those conditions worse. Your brain has changed because of your mental illness. Your neurochemical changes are out of balance, so you've become exquisitely sensitive to caffeine. You could have one cup of coffee on Monday morning and still be feeling its effects on Wednesday night. It's that bad."

But are my beloved three daily cups of Lifeboat Tea really all that dangerous? Even some folks with scientific backgrounds firmly defend caffeine. Longtime biology teacher Ted Kallmyer is one of two caffeine fans helming, a fun and very informative site that reviews caffeinated drinks and offers detailed reports on their contents.

"Caffeine has been used by mankind for centuries," Kallmyer tells me, "and it is the most widely used drug on the planet." (Some say that title officially goes to aspirin.) "The demands of our modern lifestyle facilitate an even greater need and dependence on caffeine and this has created quite a market for innovative products that contain caffeine in pretty potent levels. It has also created a lot of fear and misconception in the media, especially by those who would seek to sensationalize the whole caffeine debate and distort the facts in some cases making it appear as though caffeine will be the downfall of mankind.

"Personally, I believe that caffeine is fine in moderation and can be a useful dietary aid for helping a modern society keep up with all that is demanded of them. I keep a close watch on caffeine studies and research regarding caffeine, coffee, energy drinks, etc., and there has been nothing published that dissuades me from my views. ... However, just like with anything, we have to act responsibly when consuming caffeine and we have to make sure our irresponsible children are being looked after and taught how to make good choices when it comes to caffeine consumption....

"I think caffeine tends to get a lot of bad press, but in reality an extremely small percentage of the population is adversely effected by caffeine and in those cases it is usually blatant irresponsibility on the kid's part and the parent's part. The real epidemic in Western society isn't caffeine addiction but food addiction. The obesity crisis is costing taxpayers billions of dollars and fast food continues to make booming profits. The only reason I bring this up is because of perspective, as it seems that anti-caffeine proponents try to make mountains out of molehills when the real mountain is looming overhead."