Going caffeine-free can help without giving up coffee

People who were given decaffeinated coffee experienced a significant reduction in withdrawal symptoms. Photo by Dima Sobko/Shutterstock

Researchers may have found a way for coffee lovers to cut down on coffee without experiencing caffeine withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, moodiness and irritability.

It’s a cup of decaf.

A new study found that people experienced fewer withdrawal symptoms with the replacement drug.

“A persuasive cup of decaf can reduce withdrawal symptoms when the person drinking it doesn’t know it’s decaf. But our study shows that even if they’re aware it’s decaf, their withdrawal still goes down,” says Dr Lew Mills. Senior Research Fellow, School of Addiction Medicine, University of Sydney, Australia.

For the study, researchers worked with 61 people who said they drank three or more cups of coffee a day. They each went 24 hours without caffeine and their withdrawal was measured.

The participants were then divided into three groups.

Two groups were given decaffeinated coffee, and one of those groups was told it was decaffeinated. The other was tricked into thinking it was ordinary coffee. The third group was given water.

After about 45 minutes, participants were asked to rate their withdrawal symptoms again.

“The group we lied to reported a large decrease in caffeine withdrawal, even though there was no pharmacological reason for this,” Mills said. “Because they expected their withdrawal to go down, it did.”

That’s known as the placebo effect, a result that happens even when you’re getting a fake replacement.

Participants were asked to rate how much they expected different drinks to reduce their withdrawal.

Not surprisingly, they expected caffeinated coffee to reduce withdrawal the most. But estimates of expected consumption without caffeine and water were surprising.

“It’s funny that they actually expected water to reduce their consumption more than decaf,” Mills said.

But the group that received water did not decrease at all, while people who were given no coffee experienced a significant decrease, the findings showed.

The researchers concluded that this effect was due to strong conditioning developed during a lifetime of coffee drinking. Years of associating the taste and smell of coffee with a reduction in caffeine cravings means that even decaffeination can trigger a conditioned response.

That benefit was likely short-lived, Mills noted.

“But a cup of decaf can help someone who’s trying to cut back on caffeine temporarily get rid of the worst cravings and help them stay decaffeinated,” he said.

Mills says the study shows that factors like what you expect and how much drug you think you have in your body have a big impact on your withdrawal symptoms.

“We did this study to model some of the processes involved in addiction to any drug, including more serious or harmful drugs,” Mills said in a university news release. “What we found holds some promise for developing new addiction treatments that integrate placebo effects.”

The findings were recently published online in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Additional information

The US National Library of Medicine has more on caffeine.

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