How Does Caffeine Affect Highly Sensitive People?

A highly sensitive person with a cup of coffee in one hand and their head down due to crashing and feeling anxious from caffeine

Does your favorite morning beverage leave you feeling jittery or anxious? You might be a highly sensitive person. 

It’s time that we as a society admitted it: coffee is out of control. What should be a simple beverage has become something of a whole culture. Being a “coffee person” is viewed as almost a personality trait or a status symbol, and our collective need for coffee is the punch line of countless jokes and memes all across this great Internet. Do a quick online shopping search, and you’ll likely find plenty of novelty mugs with slogans like “Instant Human: Just Add Coffee” and “Do not speak to me before I finish this coffee!” Coffee is supposedly the miracle drug that makes us lively, friendly, and ready to take on the world.

All jokes aside, does this rich, velvety brew leave you feeling less vibrant and more anxious? It may be due to being highly sensitive. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are the roughly 30 percent of people who are acutely tuned in to the many stimuli in the world around them. That includes everything from physical sensitivity to light and sound, to noticing the emotional cue of others (and feeling emotions strongly yourself) to reflecting more and thinking very deeply

It also includes sensitivity to the effects of caffeine. 

In fact, caffeine sensitivity is so prominent among HSPs that it’s actually one of the items assessed on the HSP scale, the test researchers use to determine whether someone qualifies as sensitive. You can take an HSP test here. 

Why does caffeine hit HSPs so hard — and how can you enjoy your morning brew anyway? For the answer, let’s dive into the science of caffeine.

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The Science of Caffeine and Highly Sensitive People 

Coffee can cause anxiety, insomnia, and digestive issues in anyone — even many hours after the effects of the caffeine seem to wear off — and many people experience jitters or a squirrelly mind from even their “normal” daily intake. But for highly sensitive people, these effects are turned up. An HSP might get jitters and a racing mind or pulse even after drinking half-caf or potentially decaf coffee. And the impact on anxiety, which HSPs are already more prone to in some circumstances, can be huge. More than just “crashing,” HSPs may feel downright panicky in the afternoon or evening after drinking coffee in the morning. 

The reason caffeine affects highly sensitive people this way is likely a combination of actually being more physically sensitive to its effects and simply being more aware of the same effects caffeine has on everyone, which most people more easily ignore. Both of these factors can be explained by the way a sensitive person’s brain processes information more deeply — putting more mental resources into picking up every subtle sensation and detail, and responding more to it. 

This can also change with age. People become more sensitive to caffeine as we get older, so your coffee habits from high school or college may produce more unpleasant effects later in life. In other words: if you suddenly have a problem with caffeine when you never did before, you may still be a highly sensitive person (and always were). 

That does not not mean all hope is lost, however. If you would like to get the benefits of caffeine without the jittery side effects, read on for some tips to help you stay both calm and energized.

How to Enjoy Coffee or Caffeine as an HSP — Without the Anxiety

Even as a highly sensitive person, you may be able to enjoy caffeine (or find an equally enjoyable substitute). Here are five ways you can enjoy your morning brew, without the crushing side effects.

1. Take caffeine with food — and make it the right kind of food

If the first thing you reach for when you wake up is a nice, hot cup of black coffee, you may want to reconsider. Evidence suggests that caffeine on an empty stomach can worsen digestive symptoms of acid reflux and IBS, which highly sensitive people may be more likely than others to experience anyway. Starting the day with coffee by itself can cause blood sugar to rise and create jittery sensations for a few hours after consumption. Furthermore, it can increase the stress hormone cortisol – not to dangerous levels, but perhaps enough to cause unnecessary stress. Try having your morning java with a balanced breakfast that includes all three macronutrients. A balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein can provide the “activation energy” for your day while slowing down the absorption of caffeine and avoiding too much of a shock to your system. (One easy way to get that is with a high-protein yogurt and some not-too-sugary granola, topped with a favorite fruit if you prefer. Salmon lox with a bagel or toast is another, somewhat spendier option.)

2. Try tea instead

There are several differences between people on Team Coffee and those on the opposite tea-m (sorry, couldn’t resist!) and some of them go deeper than you’d expect. That’s because not all caffeine is created equal. When tea is made made with tea leaves from the Camelia sinensis plant — that includes your black tea, green tea, yellow tea, white tea, or oolong tea — it contains a few compounds that are different from those found in coffee. One of those is an amino acid called L-theanine. L-theanine produces alpha waves in the brain, which improve both attention and relaxation. This results in a best-of-both-worlds situation if you want extra energy without the jolt of coffee. (It helps that tea only contains about half the caffeine of coffee, making it gentler cup-for-cup.) 

The science backs up this idea, too. One study showed that, after four weeks of receiving L-theanine, participants experienced fewer stress-related conditions, like anxiety and poor sleep, and greater verbal fluency and executive function. It’s difficult to know exactly how much L-theanine is in your morning mug of Earl Grey, but making the switch from coffee to black or green tea may give you just the boost you need — and no more. 

3. Cut your coffee with more decaf

Many HSPs already drink only half-caf, or try to limit the number of cups they drink — which can be hard if it’s your morning comfort beverage. But if you’re brewing your own coffee at home, you can easily make “one-fourth caf” by using three parts decaf to one part regular. (You can even do less regular than that, depending how sensitive your system is.) This gives you at least some of the “wakeup” properties of regular coffee, but with far less caffeine and fewer side effects. Just make the transition slowly, since if you suddenly go from regular coffee to near-decaf you may experience headaches and grogginess for a few days. 

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

4. Don’t consume caffeine after…

Well, there’s not really a cut-and-dry answer here. When you can drink caffeine and still expect to sleep that night depends on many factors. Age, metabolic rate, and genetics play a role, and certain drugs, like nicotine or birth control medications, can have an impact too. The average half-life of caffeine is estimated to be 3-7 hours. Your own unique timing may fall anywhere in that range, so it may be helpful to take note of how you feel and how well you sleep after consuming caffeine in the afternoon. As a rule of thumb, some sources recommend cutting off caffeine 6 or even 12 hours before bedtime, and some say a latte at 2 or 3 PM is fine. (I personally can do a late afternoon coffee if I’m particularly tired, but my husband avoids it any time after lunch.) 

There is even some evidence that caffeine can be consumed too early. Upon waking, cortisol levels naturally rise and reach their highest level about 45 minutes later. At the same time, levels of adenosine (a hormone that promotes sleepiness) start out low and then increase. Some experts say that it’s best to wait until an hour or so after you get up to start up your coffee machine. By waiting until the cortisol (a natural stimulant) has started to decline, you can avoid doubling up on brain-stimulating substances when it’s not yet really needed.

Again, the exact timing will be your own. Listen to your body and discover what’s right for you.

5. Try one of these alternatives

If you discover that any amount of caffeine produces anxious feelings and symptoms, then perhaps it’s time to break up with it altogether. Of course, weaning off of caffeine gradually can help to mitigate some of the worst side effects of going cold turkey, like headaches. Decreasing the amount of caffeine one week at a time can be helpful. If you want to kick the coffee habit altogether or if you just don’t like the flavor of decaf coffee or tea, providing yourself with a tasty alternative can help you to stick with your resolution. Try a nice herbal tea (like chamomile) at bedtime, a cold glass of horchata to take the place of your afternoon iced coffee, or rooibos tea (which is naturally caffeine-free) as your go-to hot beverage in the mornings. (I must note here that I am not a real doctor, and I don’t even play one on TV, so definitely talk to yours before making any major diet changes.) 

Whether you like a perfectly timed morning coffee, exploring the world of tea, or enjoying the caffeine-free life, caffeine can be — well, if not your best friend, at least not your sworn enemy. With a bit of dedication and the help of science, you can feed your brain just what it needs for a focused day and restful night.

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