The caffeine in your coffee can give you a quick pick-me-up, but is there a link between caffeine and depression?

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Caffeine is incredibly popular around the globe. It’s the most widely used central nervous system stimulant worldwide.

Whether it’s in the form of coffee, tea, or energy drinks, people love getting their daily caffeine energy boost. About 85% of the U.S. population drinks at least one caffeinated beverage a day.

But with all of this caffeine in our daily drinks, you might be wondering what impact it could be having on our mental health, too. Does caffeine affect depression or have any long-term effects on the symptoms of depression? Is there a particular form of caffeine that’s better for depression than the others?

These questions have been at the center of new research that helps us better understand the link between caffeine and depression.

Most people consume caffeine for a boost in energy. Because the body and brain are intricately connected, this little energy kick may also help boost your mood, at least in the short term.

Research suggests that in low-to-moderate doses, coffee can stimulate your brain in the following ways:

  • feel more awake
  • increased vigilance
  • greater feelings of well-being
  • more energy
  • improved psychomotor performance

What’s happening in the brain?

Caffeine can have complex effects on your brain and nervous system. The stimulating effects of caffeine result from its interaction with adenosine, a molecule in your body that causes drowsiness and signals your body to start slowing down so you can sleep.

Typically, adenosine binds to adenosine receptors, and you begin to get sleepy and feel less alert. But caffeine can counteract adenosine and prevent it from binding with its receptors. This means that you won’t feel as tired, and your brain activity and alertness can pick up.

In addition, research suggests that caffeine causes increased turnover of several feel-good neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline — all of which are involved in depression.

These effects may also help explain why caffeine acts as a mild antidepressant for many people.

Can caffeine help in the long run?

Caffeine may help depressive symptoms in the long term, too. Decades-long research suggests that coffee intake is linked to reduced risk of depression.

A long-term 2010 study of 2,232 middle-aged men in Eastern Finland looked at the association between coffee, tea, caffeine, and depression. The findings show that heavy coffee drinkers had a reduced risk for depression than non-drinkers. No association was found between depression and tea consumption.

Another long-term study of 50,739 U.S. women (part of the Nurses’ Health Study) found that depression risk decreased with greater coffee consumption.

Once again, the link was found only with caffeinated coffee. There was no association between depression and decaffeinated coffee, caffeinated tea, sugared soft drinks, or chocolate consumption.

Coffee may reduce inflammation

Coffee has anti-inflammatory properties that can benefit those with chronic inflammation as inflammation has been linked to depression, as well as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Research shows that people who drink coffee have a reduced risk of significant health conditions associated with low-grade inflammation.

Coffee may reduce the risk of suicide

A large group study from 1993 found that greater coffee consumption was linked to a reduced risk of suicide, strongly associated with depression.

Researchers speculate that perhaps people with more severe forms of depression could try to self-medicate with high doses of coffee. Still, ultimately, coffee alone would be enough to lift their mood.

Since caffeine is a psychoactive substance, concerns have been raised that it might contribute to psychiatric problems — such as anxiety, depression, and psychosis — in some people.

A 2011 study has shown that depressive symptoms increased proportionally with higher caffeine intake among children. So, it’s possible that for some individuals, caffeine can actually be harmful to their mental health.

It’s also important to remember that caffeine can cause a crash, too. So even if you feel better for a little while, you could feel unusually tired or depressed after that caffeine wears off, especially if you take too much.

Caffeinated coffee seems to show the most significant benefits for the symptoms of depression. However, a 2005 Finnish study did find that daily tea consumption was also linked to a lower risk of being depressed, too.

Soda, chocolate, and decaffeinated coffee don’t appear to exert notable antidepressant benefits. If there are any benefits from these other caffeine sources, they aren’t significant enough to show up substantially in study results.

In addition, research has shown that all of the sugar in sodas and energy drinks is also harmful to your long-term mental health, meaning that more natural sources of caffeine, such as coffee and tea, are more beneficial to you than a quick sugar boost.

Overall, research supports the benefits of caffeinated coffee for depression. But if you are extra sensitive to caffeine or feel it gives you anxiety, it’s probably best not to become a coffee drinker based on this information alone.

But if you live with depressive symptoms and have been drinking a lot of soda or energy drinks for a pick-me-up, consider swapping out those drinks for coffee or tea.