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Is caffeine addiction creeping up on you?

February 19, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
America has a love affair with caffeine. But what if the romance gets out of hand? While moderate coffee drinking provides some proven benefits, doctors say caffeine addiction can be a very real problem. In fact, they're even trying to make caffeine withdrawal an official diagnosis.It's in coffee, soda and energy drinks, candy, even gum. It is caffeine, and millions of Americans count on it to get through the day.

But for some, caffeine becomes a consuming habit they can't shake.

"As long as I can remember, I would start my day with caffeine," said recovering caffeine addict Sarah K. "I would have anywhere between 10 to 15 cups to servings a day."

Sarah is a diagnosed caffeine addict and is actually in treatment at a program at Johns Hopkins University's school of medicine. She knew she had a problem when ... "I literally would make choices throughout the day -- even certain restaurants I would go to, or certain friends' houses -- making sure that the caffeine beverages would be there."

Sarah is one of dozens taking part in a Johns Hopkins study that tracks caffeine withdrawal symptoms. Dr. Chad Reissig is one of the researchers.

"Even though it's widely available and it's legal, it is a very real drug," said Dr. Reissig.

Dr. Reissig and his colleagues are trying to get caffeine withdrawal included as an official, clinical diagnosis in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. There is research showing caffeine can have possible benefits for some people in moderation.

So how much is too much? And how can you tell if you're addicted?

"The most telling sign is if they try and quit or decrease their consumption and they're not able to, or they feel that their use of caffeine is disrupting some aspect of their life," said Dr. Reissig.

Addicts suffer withdrawal symptoms, which can be incredibly debilitating.

"The classic hallmark of caffeine withdrawal is headache, general confusion, fatigue, lethargy. nausea, vomiting," said Dr. Reissig.

At Johns Hopkins, Sarah and other participants are put on a treatment plan and a daily diary to monitor caffeine consumption, coping strategies to help curb cravings. And they begin what Dr Reissig calls "caffeine fading."

Until they reach their goal. Many, like Sarah, decide to keep some caffeine in their diet.

"It's great to see from your caffeine diaries that you're down to about 25 percent of what you initially started at. You've reached your goal, so good job," said Dr. Reissig.

If your plan includes decaf, there are test strips that promise to let you know what you're drinking. We tested four cups of coffee at a lab with Boston University professor Scott Schaus. Once he confirmed two as caffeinated and two as decaf, he dipped the strips for a few seconds.

"The strips, in fact, do work. They will indicate whether or not your cup of coffee is caffeinated," said Schauss.

Sarah says she'll look for the strips to help keep her on track.

"At this time, I feel like I have a really healthy relationship with caffeine. I usually have about a serving or so of it a day," said Sarah.

Patients like Sarah visit the clinic five times for their treatment. Dr. Reissig's study is ongoing.