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New research finds that drinking a cup of decaf coffee can help stop caffeine withdrawal symptoms such as headache, fatigue, irritability, and upset stomach. Olga Sibirskaya/Stocksy
  • A new study has found that even decaf coffee can help reduce caffeine withdrawal symptoms.
  • Caffeine withdrawal symptoms can include such things as headaches, fatigue, and upset stomach.
  • A reduction in symptoms occurred even when people knew they weren’t drinking regular coffee.
  • The researchers suggest that this occurred due to the open-label placebo effect.
  • This effect could make it easier for people to reduce their coffee consumption.

Statistics show that about 75% of people drink coffee every day.

However, if you drink too much, it can sometimes have negative effects on health such as raising blood pressure.

If you are trying to stop, caffeine withdrawal symptoms — such as headache, fatigue, irritability, and upset stomach — can often make that difficult.

If this is the case for you, a group of scientists at the University of Sydney has some potentially good news.

According to the lead author of the study, Llewellyn Mills, PhD, a drug and alcohol researcher with the University of Sydney Medical School, drinking decaf coffee can temporarily reduce caffeine withdrawal symptoms.

And this effect exists even if you are aware that you are drinking decaf.

“Sounds like voodoo, I know,” said Mills, “but we’ve observed it in three separate studies now, so we’re pretty confident it’s a real thing.”

In order to study the problem of caffeine withdrawal, Mills and his team looked at 61 people who were heavy consumers of coffee, drinking at least three cups per day.

All participants went without caffeine for a 24-hour period while their withdrawal symptoms were measured.

Then, the study participants were split into three groups. Two groups were given decaf coffee, but only one of these two was told that they were drinking decaf.

The other group was tricked into thinking they were receiving regular coffee.

Finally, the third group was provided water to drink.

When they were asked to rate their symptoms 45 minutes later, the group who thought they were getting regular coffee reported experiencing a reduction in their symptoms.

Prior to being given their assigned drinks, people had been asked to rate how much they expected them to help with withdrawal symptoms, with people saying they expected regular coffee to help the most, followed by water, with decaf helping the least.

But, this wasn’t what happened. The water didn’t help at all while decaf coffee gave people significant relief.

Mills noted that there is no pharmacological reason why decaf would help reduce withdrawal symptoms, so there had to be some other reason for the observed effect.

Mills said that he attributes what happened to something called the “open-label placebo effect.”

Placebo effects usually occur when people believe they have received a pharmacologically active substance so they expect that they will see an improvement in their symptoms.

“Open-label placebo effects are an interesting exception to this rule,” said Mills, “because they happen even when people know the substance they have been given has no active drug in it.”

As to why an open-label placebo effect happened in this case, Mills says he believes it’s due to conditioning.

“Daily coffee drinkers drink thousands of cups of coffee over the course of their life. Every cup (especially the first one in the morning) reduces their withdrawal, so over time they come to associate coffee and all the stimuli surrounding it – the taste, the smell, the warmth of the cup, the heat of the liquid − both consciously and unconsciously, with caffeine withdrawal reduction.”

Over time, those stimuli can trigger a reduction in withdrawal without the presence of caffeine, he explained.

According to Mills, this effect could be helpful when you are attempting to reduce your coffee intake.

“[A] cup of good quality decaf drunk when your symptoms are at their peak might help you ride out the worst of the cravings and not give in to temptation,” he said.

Dr. Debabrata Mukherjee, chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine and professor of internal medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, said that while the caffeine content of four or five cups of coffee per day is considered safe for healthy adults, it can come with both positive and negative effects.

“In moderate doses — up to two 8-ounce cups of coffee — caffeine can make people less tired and more alert. Some studies suggest it can reduce appetite and lower the risk for depression,” he noted. “But high doses can make people feel anxious, raise blood pressure and lead to heart palpitations and trouble sleeping.”

Additionally, Mukherjee said one study has linked heavy coffee intake with an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease if you have severe high blood pressure.

“Coffee in moderation is reasonable,” concluded Mukherjee, “but excessive amounts appear to have some health risks, and [it is] good to reduce consumption in those individuals.”