Here's how to know if your morning cup of coffee is doing more harm than good.

By Lauren Wellbank
March 03, 2020

It's news that nobody wants to hear—but if you're experiencing unpleasant symptoms after enjoying your morning coffee, the caffeine may be to blame. To help you get to the root cause of any post-cup-of-joe discomfort, we spoke with two doctors who weighed in on the common signs of caffeine sensitivity and explained when it's dangerous to ignore them on your quest for an energy boost. In order to determine whether or not you are sensitive to caffeine, you must first understand what caffeine is and how it works. Dr. Caesar Djavaherian, an emergency room physician and co-founder of Carbon Health, explains that caffeine is a "stimulant drug," and the way a sensitivity presents will vary from person-to-person; it may be impacted by the amount you consume, your genetic makeup, and the additional presence of non-caffeine chemicals that also act as stimulants.

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Dr. Nicholas Pantaleo, who works in family and internal medicine with the Westmed Medical Group, notes that caffeine binds to receptors in the brain to prevent you from receiving the message that you are tired (which is why it can help you to feel "more awake" in the morning). This, however, can lead to overstimulation. "Overstimulation because of either the amount of caffeine consumed or the individual's genetic makeup can cause anxiety, insomnia, and jitteriness," explains Dr. Djavaherian.

Related: This Is How Much Coffee You Can Safely Drink Each Day, According to New Research

While studies have identified multiple genetic variants that might predict caffeine sensitivity—small variations in the body's caffeine receptors, as well as their ability to make the protein that metabolizes caffeine—those who metabolize caffeine quickly are much less sensitive to its effects. That's good news for people who enjoy several cups of coffee throughout the day, but bad news if they are looking for an energy boost with each cup.

If you attempt to power through some of your minor symptoms of caffeine sensitivity (after all, those jittery feelings fuel you!) so that you can still harness the energy an extra cup of coffee gives you each day, you may end up doing more harm than good. "More caffeine can limit sensitivity in some people, but be cautious with too much intake. This can lead to more symptoms," says Dr. Pantaleo. While it may be tempting to try exposure therapy to cure your discomfort, you could end up with increased or worsening symptoms in the long run.

Here's when to pull a hard stop: If you experience any chest pain or severe palpitations while on any stimulant, including caffeine, you should seek prompt medical evaluation says Dr. Djavaherian, as this may be a sign of low blood flow to the heart or a new cardiac arrhythmia like atrial fibrillation; though rare, these symptoms are ones to watch out for: "Similarly, experiencing a severe headache while on caffeine could be a result of very high blood pressure."

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