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Quitting Drinking? Recovering Alcoholics Switch to Caffeine Addiction

Posted Dec 16 2009 11:15am 4 Comments
Have you ever noticed how much coffee a recovering alcoholic drinks? Let’s just say “decaf” is not his/her first choice.

(If you or someone you know has a parent or spouse with an alcohol problem, please click here to get my free special report on recognizing the 5 mistakes spouse’s of alcoholics make. It will change your life).

Today, in my psychiatric practice I noticed three of my recovering alcoholic patients this morning were carrying the same very large bright red coffee cup from Starbucks. I asked each one, “Do you really need so much coffee? Each one basically replied “Yep”. Here is what they had in common. All three were:

  • Recovering alcoholics.
  • They had all chosen the same drink- Macchiato (has 2 shots expresso).
  • They all said they drank coffee to wake up.

The pharmacologist in me was intrigued.

I wondered, after years of the effects of drinking alcohol which is a central nervous system depressant, does the brain of the recovering alcoholic need a stimulant effect?

In a study conducted at Vanderbilt University they found that 88.5 % of recovering alcoholics are regular coffee drinkers compared to 57% of the general population. The other important finding is that 1/3 of the recovering alcoholics drank more than 4 cups a day. The study included 289 member of Alcoholics Anonymous in Nashville, TN. Dr. Peter Martin who is a Vanderbilt professor of psychiatry and pharmacology said, “This study leads us to believe that there may be something in coffee that may facilitate the abstinence of alcohol.” Most of the recovering alcoholics reported drinking coffee for the stimulant effect and better concentration.

Robert Swift, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University pointed out that it is unknown if coffee consumption helps or hurts abstinence. He also pointed out that most recovering alcoholics have difficulty with sleep and that coffee consumption makes sleep even worse.

Here’s what I tell the recovering alcoholics that I treat:

Lower the amount of caffeine that you drink.

I do this for 2 reasons. Many alcoholics have a significant amount of anxiety. Most recovering alcoholics struggle with insomnia. Coffee worsens both anxiety and insomnia. And yes.. like other addictive substances, there are withdrawal symptoms when the substance (caffeine) is abruptly stopped. Also, it takes drinking increasing amounts of caffeine to maintain the stimulant effect.

So, wake up and smell the coffee (don’t drink it)! Stack the deck in your favor and do not use yet another substance in excess that may be hurting you. At the very least start mixing it with “decaf”.

Source: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, online July 18th, published October 2008.

Comments (4)
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I completely agree with this.  My husband is 4 months sober and drinks 2 monster's a day.  He is easily agitated, literally cannot stop talking and argumentative.  I wish he could see what's going on.  He does have a lot of anxiety like you mentioned and takes klonipin for it, which helps - but the energy drinks cause more anxiety.  Thanks for your article.
I think this is bullshit. It is very hard to kick alcohol. Without caffeine it might be too hard to quit. I do not have a problem with anxiety or insomnia. Like many alcoholics I drank to self-medicate undertreated depression. I could sleep 11-12 hours a day. It would be impossible for me to wake up, much less stay up without my @ 10 cups of caffieine. Yeah, it is not so great, but much, much better than drinking. You should stop being so politically correct and practice harm reduction. Whatever is causing the greatest harm should be concentrated on. If something less harmful can prevent something more harmful than it is okay. I can't imagine staying sober with caffiene for at least a year. And I refuse to listen to some judgemental fool, undoubtedly with no experience kicking alcohol, talk crap to people. Recovering alcoholics, unless you have you have anxiety problems, forget this crap. Also, if you have depression, see a psychopharmacologist. They often prescribe Adderal if you can't wake up, which lowers the need for caffeine. And don't let fools get you down--do anything that helps you meet your primary goal--quitting alcohol. Best wishes.

This is a rather interesting article.  As a recovering alcoholic, I have noticed that many, even most alcoholics in recovery drink a LOT of caffeine.  Personally, before I quit drinking, I drank very little caffeine, and since entering sobriety I have noticed my caffeine intake increase to around one caffinated drink a day.  I have no medical training, but I can imagine several factors could lead to the high levels of caffeine intake observed in recovering alcoholics.  First, I feel that my oral fixation was a contributing factor in my alcoholism.  Having something to drink, alcohol or not is comforting.  Most non-alcoholic beverages readily available are caffinated.  Second, cultural influences may lead the alcoholic to use caffeine instead.  One need only walk into an AA meeting to observe the social connectivity that is sparked by caffeine use.  Third, alcoholics like other addicts have a tendency to 'switch' addictions.  While we may be gaining ground in recovery, it is important to watch out for alternative pitfalls that prevent themselves.  This last reason I think sheds light on the above comment.  This diatribe could be used as a classic model of the active alcoholic's response to criticism of their drinking- one would need only to replace the word caffeine with alcohol.  Such and attitude seems dangerous because it seperates a portion of one's life and behavior from 12 step principles, thus undermining the foundation of recovery, especially steps 1-3.  Although it is certainly difficult to do so, it would be much better to "...pratice these principles in ALL our affairs."


 Check the Starbucks website.  The Latte's and Espresso's have much less Caffeine then a regular coffee of the same size.

Caffeine is much less harmful than nicotine inhaled via smoke which you see like crazy at AA meetings. I feel sorry for those people that end up addicted to that drug and con't stop that one.


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