Caffeine is a stimulant present in coffee and tea, among other foods and beverages. It provides a kick of energy. Research is inconclusive as to whether caffeine helps people with depression or makes the symptoms worse.
In this article, we look at both the positive and negative possible effects of caffeine in people with depression.
We also examine which other foods and beverages that people who have depression should consume, as well as those they may wish to avoid.
Scientific studies into the relationship between caffeine and depression have often shown that caffeine can reduce the incidence of depression.
Some studies even suggest that caffeine intake could reduce the incidence of suicide.
One 2016 analysis looked at 11 observational studies that took place in China between 1980 and 2015. It found that caffeine contributed to a significant decrease in a person’s risk of depression.
Another analysis of 12 studies looked at the relationship between caffeine and depression. The analysis included the data of 346,913 individuals, of whom 8,146 had depression.
The study concluded that caffeine, particularly when present in coffee, had a protective effect against depression.
The study also revealed that tea was less protective than coffee but still effective in reducing depression risk to some extent.
A 2019 analysis of data from 80,173 people found that drinking one to four cups of coffee per day reduced the risk of suicidal ideation in women. It did not affect suicidal ideation in men, however.
Why is coffee better at reducing depression risk than tea?
Some components in coffee might counteract the negative effects of depression, according to one 2014 Japanese study.
Coffee also contains chlorogenic acid, ferulic acid, and caffeic acid. These acids can reduce the inflammation of nerve cells that takes place in the brains of people with depression.
This may relieve some of the discomfort and distress that depression can bring, some of which occurs due to inflammation.
Not all tea is less effective than coffee at reducing the risk of depression. The study also identified that green tea has a high antioxidant content and can be as effective as coffee in protecting against depression.
Green tea contains folate, which may also help with depression. The study linked green tea and coffee consumption to a reduced risk of depression.
Not all studies agree that caffeine only has positive effects for people with depression.
Disruption of neurotransmitters
One 2019 systemic review of how nutrition can affect depression in adolescents suggests that tea and coffee might disrupt several important neurotransmitters, including dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
The review maintains that in people with depression, a shortage of or disruption to dopamine can cause low motivation and a craving for stimulants.
A shortage of GABA can increase irritability, restless, anxiety, and self-criticism.
Heavy coffee consumption and a high intake of caffeine can result in side effects such as:
Caffeine can also cause agitation, tremors, nervousness, and sleeplessness. All of these symptoms can have a negative impact on mood.
These symptoms are similar to those of the body’s “fight-or-flight” mode. This is the body’s natural response to high adrenalin or potentially threatening situations. Stimulant substances also trigger this reaction.
If a person triggers this response too often by consuming excessive amounts of caffeine, it could lead to increased levels of anxiety.
Several studies have also shown a connection between coffee intake and an increase in depression.
According to one 2014 review in the journal Rivista di Psichiatria, caffeine consumption could make depression worse in people who already have mood disorders.
Caffeine is a stimulant. For this reason, people may experience withdrawal symptoms if they do not have access to it. Caffeine withdrawal can trigger symptoms that overlap with those of depression and anxiety.
Caffeine only provides a temporary boost to the nervous system. As a result, people with depression may experience a more severe drop in their mood once the effects of the stimulant wear off.
People with depression should only consume caffeine in moderation.
There are some foods and beverages that people with depression should try to avoid when looking to counter the effects of the condition.
One of the main foods to avoid is refined sugar. Whether a person stirs it into their hot drink or eats it in the form of a candy bar, refined sugar provides an immediate rush.
After the rush passes, however, people may feel depleted and lower in mood than they were before they consumed the sugar.
Other foods that people with a high risk of depression should minimize or avoid include:
- Artificial sweeteners: A 2019 review in the BMJ found a link between the use of artificial sweeteners and an increased risk of depression.
- Processed food: Ready meals and packaged food have the same effect as sugar. Manufacturers often load these foods with salt and preservatives. A 2019 cohort study in Spanish students found that those who consumed ultra processed foods had the highest risk of depression, especially if they also did not engage in much physical activity.
- Hydrogenated oils: These are present in deep fried food, fast food, and french fries. A 2019 study in mice found that the animals exhibited depression-like behaviors after exposure to a high fat diet.
- Alcohol: This is a depressant of the central nervous system. Consuming too much alcohol can lead to dependency and cause a hangover, which can significantly bring down a person’s mood.
No single dietary plan has a proven benefit for managing depression.
However, a 2018 systematic review in the World Journal of Psychology identified 34 nutrients that may contribute to depression if a person does not consume enough of them.
People will sometimes need to supplement these nutrients when managing depression.
The review analyzed a list of 213 foods and ranked them according to their density of the antidepressant nutrients listed above.
The leading plant foods included:
- mustard, turnip, or beet greens
- Swiss chard
- fresh herbs, such as basil or parsley
- chicory greens
- kale and collard greens
Animal foods that can help supplement these nutrients included:
- organ meats, including liver
- poultry giblets
The key to good psychological and physical health is a varied, balanced diet that provides a wide range of nutrients.
Although coffee and tea are not included in this list, the evidence is inconclusive as to their effects in people with depression. Drinking these beverages in moderation is unlikely to be harmful, however.
If a person has concerns about possible depression, the first step should be to seek consultation with a doctor and commence treatment.
Are caffeine supplements good for managing depression?
Caffeine may temporarily help some people with depression improve their mood. However, it may also make symptoms worse. Consuming 400 milligrams of caffeine is generally considered safe for most people, but this includes total daily caffeine intake from food, beverages, and supplements.
Instead of taking a caffeine pill, mild depression could respond well to moderate consumption of caffeinated beverages (three cups of coffee or tea spread out over the day) and may be a better choice.
Never self-medicate depression, and speak with a doctor to determine whether or not caffeine supplements are right before beginning any supplement.Katherine Marengo LDN, RD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.