Unaware of her caffeine allergy, Ruth continued ingesting caffeinated products for the next 25 years. Her physical and mental health deteriorated, and in 1999 she was diagnosed with personality disorder and bipolar disorder, which resulted in her being committed to a locked ward.
Finally, a wise doctor diagnosed her with caffeine allergy. Her story inspired her to write Welcome to the Dance: Caffeine Allergy — A Masked Cerebral Allergy and Progressive Toxic Dementia.
Caffeine Sensitivity/Caffeine Allergy
Coffee, colas, Red Bull, chocolate, diet pills — we are a nation on legalized speed. This is of concern. All that caffeine is throwing some of us dangerously off track.
Caffeine is an addictive stimulant found in coffee, tea, colas, cocoa and chocolate. It is also in some prescribed and over-the-counter drugs. Caffeine drives the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. While some people feel comfortably alert and awake as a result, others are sensitive to this adrenaline rush and experience the flight-or-fight response: fast pulse, rapid heart beat, quick breathing and muscle tension. These physiological responses typify anxiety states. The affected person feels jittery, shaky, nervous, irritable, anxious, restless and can experience insomnia.
Other people, like Whalen, are more than sensitive to caffeine. They are considered allergic, although the line is fine between the two responses. The allergic person may experience sneezing, an itchy mouth, hoarseness, difficulty breathing, hives, swollen throat/tongue/lips/face, difficulty swallowing, eczema, fainting, heart palpitations, pain in the chest or hyperventilation.
From Jitters to Psychosis
These horrific physical symptoms are accompanied by psychiatric responses. Depending on the degree of caffeine consumption, people may also experience confusion, inability to focus, dizziness, mood swings, anxiety, light sensitivity and PMS. Medical physicians or psychiatrists commonly misdiagnose them with anxiety disorder, ADHD, panic, OCD, bipolar disorder or depression and mistakenly put them on medication. In severe cases, as with Ruth Whalen, they become schizophrenic, experiencing delusions, paranoia and hallucinations, and are given even more potentially dangerous drugs. In her book, Whalen tells the story of a caffeine allergic woman who was wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized for over 40 years.
Why would caffeine cause someone to go over the edge? Psychosis occurs because adrenaline increases dopamine, our “feel good” reward neurotransmitter, and abnormally high dopaminergic transmission has been linked to psychosis and schizophrenia.
When some people are taken off caffeine, the schizophrenia disappears. Caffeine withdrawal would help explain why some Russian doctors have been able to cure schizophrenia with 30 day fasts. In some cases, caffeine allergy was likely masked as schizophrenia and the fast purged the caffeine out of the person’s system.1
Another serious condition tied to caffeine consumption is anorexia, as, to encourage loss of appetite, anorexics typically drink loads of coffee and diet sodas and refuse to give them up.2 The heavy caffeine consumption further deteriorates their body and brain, locking the anorexic further into distorted body image thinking and starvation.
Harming Yourself and Not Knowing It
Why is caffeine allergy not better known and diagnosed? To start, sometimes it can take several hours after caffeine ingestion for allergy symptoms to crop up and you don’t associate caffeine with the response.
Further, people may be unaware that they have ingested caffeine. For instance, not everyone knows that chocolate has caffeine or that, contrary to popular belief, coffee enemas are absorbed into the bloodstream and send caffeine sensitive people like me, who hasn’t had a cup of coffee in forty years, into overdrive. Also, doctors rarely diagnose caffeine allergy because few know of it. Nor do most doctors routinely inquire about coffee intake.
In the dark, people continue to use caffeinated products, wearing down their vital organs, including their brains. In 1984, in an article in Science magazine, Harvard Medical School neurologist James A. Nathanson stated that plants use caffeine as a natural insecticide to ward off dangerous pests and that these substances interfered with behavior and growth in many insects and insect larvae.
For example, after being given a caffeine compound, larvae showed signs of confusion.3 Little wonder humans, too, can experience confusion and even psychosis.
Caffeine destabilizes your nervous system in other ways. A diuretic, caffeine speeds elimination of many minerals and vitamins, such as potassium, zinc, magnesium, calcium, vitamin C and the B vitamins (especially the anti-stress vitamin B1). This can lead to deficiencies, which increase anxiety, panic, mood swings and fatigue. The problem is compounded as caffeine causes blood sugar to rise in the first hour after consumption, creating an initial buzz, and then drops to subnormal levels, causing an energy crash.
Coffee: the Worst Offender
Coffee is especially bad because it contains two other stimulants: theophylline and theobromine. A mere four cups per day can make a person nervous and jittery, while eight cups will send some into a panic attack. Caffeine injections also produce panic in healthy volunteers participating in anxiety studies. If you are already suffering anxiety and panic episodes, even a little caffeine will make you feel uncomfortable and jittery and aggravate the frequency and severity of episodes. Caffeine causes panic attack by interfering with adenosine, a brain chemical that normally has a calming effect, and by raising levels of lactate, a biochemical implicated in producing panic attacks. The effect can last for as long as six hours and interfere with sleep.
But what about caffeine junkies who can’t live without their fix and appear to tolerate caffeine well? Apparently, these folks are also getting into a tizzy. In a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, 1,500 psychology students were divided into four categories based on coffee intake: abstainers, low consumers (one cup or equivalent a day), moderate (one to five cups a day) and high (five cups or more a day).4 The moderate and high consumers demonstrated higher levels of anxiety and depression than the abstainers. Further, the high consumers had higher incidence of stress-related medical problems and lower academic performance.
This tells us that even if you are not caffeine sensitive, consuming large amounts of caffeine — usually more than 250 mg per day — can be dangerous for your physical and mental health.
Give Up Caffeine
To break the caffeine habit, start by cutting out caffeine products. These include:
Check labels. Few know, for instance, that One A Day vitamins for women contain the caffeine equivalent of one cup of coffee. Yes, even some vitamin pills are caffeinated!
If you are addicted to caffeine, you must reduce your consumption gradually to avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms like fatigue, shakiness and headaches. In most, withdrawal takes around four to six days. If you are allergic, physical withdrawal could take 12 months or longer, and recovery symptoms can be severe, including: memory loss, confusion, tremors,
agitated states, insomnia/somnolence and nightmares.
Tips to help you kick the caffeine habit:
Detoxify Your Liver
The more sensitive you are to the caffeine jitters, the less efficient your liver is at metabolizing the drug and cleansing it from your body. Help your liver do its job by eating whole, preferably raw, organic food as much as possible. Organic is important because caffeine is often used as a form of pesticide for many fruits and vegetables. Eating high nutrient, low calorie foods will also help you to give up some of your comfort food and drinks naturally by feeding your nervous system the nutrients it needs, easing the feeling of loss that you may experience.
reports of anorexia nervosa and caffeinism, John A Sours, Am J Psychiatry 1983;140:235-236.
lib caffeine consumption, symptoms of caffeinism, and academic performance, K Gilliland and D Andress, Am J Psychiatry 1981;138:512-514.