You can’t focus, your palms are sweaty, and your heart is racing—that’s a clear sign of the jitters, as any avid coffee drinker knows. Thankfully, these unfortunate side effects of drinking too much caffeine can be prevented, and you don’t have to give up your daily habit to do it. Let’s take a closer look at what causes coffee jitters and what you can do to get rid of them (or, better yet, keep them from happening in the first place).
“Jitters” is a catch-all term for the symptoms many people experience after drinking too much coffee. It starts with a rush of energy and heightened alertness—arguably positive sensations, and the reason many people drink coffee in the first place.
Unfortunately, these are quickly followed by other symptoms, like anxiety, sweating, shaking, or restlessness. Some people even get short of breath and light-headed, experiencing symptoms similar to those of an anxiety attack.
All of these sensations are your body’s response to the same chemical: caffeine. Along with its other properties, caffeine is toxic to many plants. Coffee plants produce it as a kind of self-defense pesticide. As leaves drop from the plant and decay on the ground around it, the caffeine is leached into the soil, preventing other plants from growing there and competing for water, sunlight, and other resources.
In the human body, caffeine is a stimulant. It prompts your brain to enter fight-or-flight mode by blocking the adenosine receptors in the nervous system. Adenosine is what causes feelings of drowsiness, so blocking it makes you feel more alert and awake.
There are other side effects when your body goes into fight-or-flight. The circulatory system goes into overdrive, sending more blood around your body, in turn raising the heart rate and blood pressure.
While caffeine is the main culprit in the jitters, it’s coffee’s other qualities that make it more likely to cause them than, say, green tea. The high acidity of coffee changes how your body processes the caffeine, especially if you’re drinking it on an empty stomach.
If you drink a lot of caffeine, your body will likely develop a tolerance for it and you’ll be able to drink more before you experience these symptoms. Even daily drinkers have their limit, though. You can think of jitters as your body’s warning sign that it’s had enough.
Any caffeinated coffee could cause jitters if you drink enough of it but some particular roasts and styles are more likely offenders than others. Let’s take a quick look at the types of coffee most likely to start your hands shaking (and what you can drink instead).
One ounce of espresso contains about the same amount of caffeine as a 6-ounce cup of drip coffee. This concentrated caffeine is absorbed particularly quickly by your body, especially if you’re drinking it as an undiluted shot.
Diluting can help to mitigate these effects. Adding milk is the best option since the proteins in the milk take longer to break down and help slow the release of caffeine into your system. Even turning it into an Americano by adding hot water can help, though, because you won’t drink it as quickly.
Some of the caffeine in coffee beans is lost during roasting. The longer the beans roast, the lower the average caffeine content. Along with that, roasting converts some of the acids in the beans into sugar. This means the average light roast is more acidic and has more caffeine than the typical dark roast, both things that make them more likely to cause the jitters.
Sugary Coffee Drinks
Adding milk can help reduce the jitters, but adding sugar does the opposite. Breaking down simple sugars gives the body a quick, intense burst of energy, similar to the effects of caffeine. When you drink a caramel latte or other sugary drink, these effects are compounded.
The best option is to ditch the sugar altogether. A well-made latte will still be a little sweet from the steamed milk, so you might find you like it just fine without the extra syrup. You could also try using honey instead of sugar. Honey tastes sweeter than sugar, so you can use less of it, and is a bit more complex, raising blood sugar levels more slowly and mitigating the effects of the jitters. Organic raw sugar is another good substitution.
You’ve probably heard the saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That’s definitely true when it comes to coffee jitters. There are a few small changes you can make to your daily coffee-drinking habits to help you avoid that anxious, shaky feeling:
A few small changes can go a long way toward preventing the jitters. But what do you do if it doesn’t work and you get them anyway? You don’t just have to wait it out and hope the feeling passes. Here are a few tips for getting rid of that jittery, anxious feeling.
#1: Stop drinking caffeine as soon as you notice.
Consuming more caffeine is only going to make the feelings worse, and probably make them last longer, too. Put down the coffee and drink some water instead, at least until you’re feeling back to normal.
Keep in mind coffee isn’t the only thing that contains caffeine. Foods like chocolate contain caffeine, as do some medications like Excedrin, Midol, and many migraine medications. In fact, a dose of Excedrin Migraine contains more caffeine than the average cup of coffee. Check to make sure you’re not ingesting more caffeine than you think through non-coffee sources.
#2: Take a walk.
If you’re feeling anxious, you’re not going to be able to focus on whatever task you’re working on. A quick walk can help you get out some of that restless energy and relieve feelings of anxiety.
If your environment allows, stepping outside for a few minutes can be especially beneficial. Sunlight is a source of vitamin D, which can encourage the brain to produce feel-good chemicals like serotonin.
#3: Drink some herbal tea.
Herbal is the key here—you don’t want to add more caffeine that will fuel the fire. Herbal teas like peppermint and chamomile have relaxing properties, soothing the anxiety that comes with the jitters. Since teas are mostly water, they’re helpful in rehydrating, too, another common issue that goes along with drinking too much coffee.
#4: Have some vitamin C.
Caffeine impairs your body’s ability to absorb vitamins, including vitamin C. Too much of it can also trick your body into thinking it has a deficiency, adding extra stress to your systems.
Eating fruit high in vitamin C, like oranges and grapefruits, is the best way to get your fix when you have the jitters. Along with vitamins, fruit contains fiber and carbohydrates, both of which can help to stabilize your blood sugar and get you back to normal faster. Fruit juices and vitamin C supplements are other options if there’s no fresh fruit available.
#5: Practice mindfulness.
Taking a second to calm and realign your thoughts can help ease the anxiety and difficulty concentrating associated with the jitters. Stop what you’re doing and focus on taking deep, even breaths in and out for 30-60 seconds.
Stretching and meditation can help with this, too. If you’re a yoga fan, stand up and do a few quick poses, focusing on those that open up and relax the muscles of your neck, shoulders, and upper back.
Keep in mind this isn’t necessarily going to relieve all the physical symptoms of the jitters, like shaking hands or excessive sweating. What it will do is slow your heart rate down and lower your body’s overall stress levels, making it easier to push through the jitters until they subside.
The answer to that question is different for everyone. Some people can drink espresso shots all day long and never feel an ill effect, while others feel wired after a single cup. It all depends on your metabolism and caffeine tolerance.
If you’re looking for a scientific answer to this question, health organizations like the Mayo Clinic and FDA say the average healthy adult can consume up to 400mg of caffeine per day without ill effects. That’s roughly 6 ounces of espresso, 3 medium lattes, or 4-5 cups of drip coffee, depending on the size of your mug.
That’s not a hard and fast rule for everyone, of course. The bottom line is, if you start to feel the jitters, you’ve had too much. If you normally drink 5 cups a day, try drinking 4 instead, then cut back to 3 the next day if you’re still experiencing symptoms. Once you know how much is too much for you, you’ll be able to avoid those shaky, anxious feelings in the future.
Caffeine’s effects typically reach their peak around 30 to 60 minutes after you drink it. This is when the jitters kick in for most people who experience them.
How long the jitters last is a more open-ended question. The half-life of caffeine is about 5 hours, and for most people takes about 10 hours to clear out of their system. This isn’t to say that you’ll feel jittery for 5 hours every time you drink coffee, but the less caffeine is left in your system, the less severe your symptoms will be.
Just like caffeine tolerance, how long you’ll feel its effects varies from one person to the next. People who are particularly sensitive to caffeine might still have anxiety or restlessness hours or even days later. For most people, coffee jitters last no more than an hour or two, even if you don’t take any extra steps to get rid of them.
Like so many things, coffee is best enjoyed in moderation. If you need to drink a cup before you can start your day, that’s a likely sign you’re not getting enough sleep—ironically, something that drinking too much coffee can cause, especially if you drink it late in the day.
The bottom line is, don’t just set out to eliminate the jitters without thinking about why they happened in the first place. A few small adjustments to your daily routine can help you feel better all day long, letting you have your coffee and be jitter-free, too.
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