Should You Take Regular Breaks from Coffee? Two Caffeine Experts Reveal the Surprising Answer

Just keep your intake consistent.

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Caffeine can feel like a cheat code for getting through a rough day. It is, after all, the world’s most popular stimulant. In fact, about 80 percent of adults in the U.S. consume caffeine in some form every day. But one major side effect that comes along with drinking caffeine, in all its forms, is a dependency on it. Once we’re hooked on our one cup a day, it's hard to go a morning without it. Is there a way to stall or even prevent this annoying part? Can taking a break from the drug fix a dependency on it?

It may seem like a worthwhile pursuit, but experts argue there’s not much good that comes from a caffeine-free stint.

Caffeine acts on the central nervous system within 45 minutes of consumption. After it’s imbibed through coffee, tea, or soda, it’s absorbed into the gastrointestinal tract. From there, it flows up to the brain, where it binds to receptors for the neurotransmitter adenosine, like a key into a lock. Adenosine receptors help regulate when we feel tired and when we feel awake. When caffeine locks out adenosine from its receptor, it prevents your brain from signaling that it's tired, and you may find yourself surprisingly alert. Likewise, it increases our adrenaline and cortisol levels, which are hormones associated with alertness and stress.

Unsurprisingly, the more frequently you consume caffeine, the more your body expects it. “If you have a lot of caffeine in your system, then your body will make more [adenosine receptors],” Robert Cowan, a neurology professor at Stanford University, tells Inverse. This means the more caffeine you drink, the more you’ll continue to need to bind to all these adenosine receptors.

Anyone who’s skipped their usual coffee even for one day knows that a world of pain could be in store. If you start every day with a cup of joe, your brain has produced adenosine receptors for their joyful union with caffeine molecules. If those receptors are jilted, your brain exacts its revenge.

“When it makes more receptors, and the caffeine doesn't come, you experience withdrawal,” Cowan says.

But taking a break from all caffeine for a certain period of time to reset your body’s natural energy levels (whatever those may be — there’s so much that affects them) won’t really do much. The most it will do is probably give you a headache.

While taking breaks from certain drugs can keep you from building up tolerance, caffeine usually isn’t one such drug. If you stick with a consistent dose, say one cup of coffee a day, you probably won’t need to increase that dose to get your usual effect from it, and you’ll stave off any withdrawal symptoms.

“Whatever your pattern is, try to stick with it,” Cowan suggests.

The only case in which loss of tolerance might be helpful is if someone guzzles enormous amounts of caffeine, perhaps after a particularly stressful stretch of time, says Laura Juliano, a psychology professor at American University who specializes in behavioral mechanisms and drug use. Jumping from a daily cup of coffee to consuming well over 400 milligrams of caffeine every day could acclimate your body to far higher levels of the stimulant. Once that stressful period is over, taking a caffeine break to return to your baseline may help.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits from parting with caffeine. The stimulant boosts anxiety, so if you find you’re unusually anxious or can’t sleep, lessening the amount of caffeine you regularly consume could be a good place to start.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that quickly jumping to consuming over 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, not up to as previously stated, could make you more accustomed to needing additional caffeine daily.

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