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Replacing Stimulant Use With Caffeine (Is It Doable?)

If you’re hoping to kick a stimulant-abuse habit, you’re certainly not alone. All across the United States, there are people who hope to put down the crack pipe, step away from the Ritalin pill bottle, or walk away from the cocaine straw.

Kicking that habit isn’t always easy, however. There are no approved medications to help you move through the cravings and withdrawal that might take hold when you attempt to stop the abuse.

Could the help you need be staring at you from your coffee cup? It’s a tempting theory.

Plenty of beverages, including coffee, tea, and energy drinks, contain the stimulant caffeine. You might be tempted to treat your stimulant addiction with a healthy dose of caffeine to help you heal. Here’s what you need to know before you do. 

Caffeine Is a Stimulant Medication 

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, more than 80 percent of adults in North America consume caffeine regularly. For many people, brewing a cup of coffee is a normal and natural part of every morning. Just as they expect to hop into the shower and get dressed before work, they expect to pour a warm stream of coffee into their cups.

Coffee and other caffeinated drinks are associated with the morning because they are stimulant beverages. The caffeine ingredient alters chemical signals within the brain, boosting a sense of concentration and alertness. For those who struggle to shake off the effects of sleep, caffeine can mean the difference between feeling focused and feeling foggy.

Caffeine can be remarkably persistent within the body. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it takes about six hours for half of the caffeine consumed to be eliminated by the body. That means people who begin the day with caffeine can feel the effect of the drug well into the afternoon. When the impact wears off, another cup can help to bring the sense of focus back.

This persistence makes caffeine a little different than other stimulants. Stimulant drugs like cocaine tend to move through the body very quickly, causing big changes that only last a short time. Since caffeine’s impact is smaller and lasts for longer, it is slightly different than these other drugs.

However, caffeine and drugs like Ritalin are similar in the changes they deliver to the brain. Just because caffeine is socially acceptable doesn’t change the fact that it is a drug. And like many drugs, caffeine comes with risks.

Risks of Caffeine

In an article published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, researchers looked through published studies about caffeine to determine what risks had been associated with the drug.

They found support for the idea that caffeine use contributes to:

  • Cardiac dysfunction, especially in those with underlying heart disease
  • Miscarriage
  • Low birth weight in babies
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Unstable bladder symptoms in women with underlying bladder issues

This may seem like a short list, but some of the conditions listed here can have a profound impact on quality of life. If you’re taking in large doses of caffeine, for example, and you struggle to sleep well for days on end, that could have a deep impact on your ability to feel healthy and calm the next day.

Similarly, if you take in too much caffeine and feel as though your heart is racing, you may end up in the emergency room for help. That visit could keep you away from work, and you could end up with a big bill for the associated medical costs.

Caffeine can cause death, but that is rare. According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, a person must drink 80 cups of strong coffee in a row to experience death by caffeine.

But those who take in too much at once can experience other overdose symptoms such as:

  • Trembling
  • Nausea
  • Unusual heartbeat
  • Confusion
  • Seizures

Caffeine May Not Help With Cravings 

When compared to other stimulant drugs such as cocaine, caffeine is relatively weak. People who drink a cup of coffee may feel a touch more alert within a few moments, but they may not feel an overwhelming sense of relief and The drug is just not strong enough to bring about such a massive, intense change.

Multiple people with caffeinated beverages

That means people who hope to medicate with caffeine may be tempted to take in a great deal of the drug, thinking that bigger doses of a weak drug will result in big changes. As mentioned, caffeine can be dangerous in large doses. The heart muscle, in particular, can be damaged by large doses of caffeine.

In addition, caffeine works on slightly different centers of the brain when compared to other stimulant drugs. According to an article published by Medscape, caffeine does not work on the dopamine pathway within the brain. This pathway is associated with feelings of reward and motivation and also with addiction.

People struggling with an addiction to stimulants may be left with cravings and other addiction-related symptoms due to changes in this dopamine pathway caused by addiction. If caffeine does not work on this pathway, those cravings and other associated symptoms may not be addressed by taking in caffeine. The drug just doesn’t work that way.

People with an addiction to some kinds of stimulants may also have an addiction to caffeine, however. They may not even know they have been taking caffeine, but the dependence may be there.

According to research cited in an article published in The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, up to 40 percent of the weight of cocaine shipments can be attributed to caffeine. Up to 50 percent of cocaine shipments from Brazil are mixed with caffeine.

Drug dealers often look for ways to cut their drugs with other substances so that they can make a bigger profit. Adding a stimulant like caffeine to another stimulant like cocaine can boost the power of the drug, which could help to increase sales. The dealer may never tell customers about the addition, but it may be there all the same.

If you’ve been taking drugs dosed with caffeine, you may have developed a physical dependence on caffeine. Trying to quit that substance can lead to headaches, fatigue, and digestive upset. That can make your withdrawal symptoms from other stimulants all the more powerful and painful.

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What to Know About Caffeine 

When you’re in the early stages of withdrawal from stimulants, you might struggle to focus and feel alert. Caffeine can help to clear those symptoms to some degree. That can help you feel awake enough to work in therapy and come up with strategies you can use to help you recover from your addiction.

A doctor holding a clipboard with an addiction therapy plan on it

If you’re dealing with an underlying dependence on caffeine due to additions to the drugs you took, adding caffeine to your diet can help you to quench those caffeine-withdrawal symptoms so that you might feel a little better every day.

It’s important not to take in too much caffeine. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine is considered safe for healthy adults. That equates to about four or five cups of coffee or two energy drinks.

If you find that you’re tempted to take in much higher doses of caffeine, you might need to talk with your doctor about other solutions that could be more helpful.

Addiction Treatment

In addition to using caffeine, you should consider working with a therapist on your addiction in a structured recovery program. In a program like this, you can learn more about how your stimulant addiction developed, and you can find out more about how others have overcome something similar.

Your therapist can also help you to develop healthy habits you can rely on when you’re tempted to return to drug use. Programs like this can last for months. As time passes, you’ll find yourself getting stronger.

It’s not possible to replace stimulants with caffeine, though caffeine may bring some positive benefits to those in recovery. Work with an addiction treatment program to safely detox from stimulant use and build healthy strategies for recovery.


Caffeine. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Retrieved January 2019 from

Caffeine and Sleep. National Sleep Foundation. Retrieved January 2019 from

(May 2017). The Safety of Ingested Caffeine: A Comprehensive Review. Frontiers in Psychiatry. Retrieved January 2019 from

Caffeine. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. Retrieved January 2019 from

(June 2018). Neurologic Effects of Caffeine. Medscape. Retrieved January 2019 from

(August 2016). Discriminative Stimulus Effects of Binary Drug Mixtures: Studies with Cocaine, MDPV, and Caffeine. The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics. Retrieved January 2019 from

(December 2018). Spilling the Beans: How Much is Too Much? U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved January 2019 from

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