Some people think that giving coffee or a caffeinated drink to a person who’s been drinking alcohol can help sober the person up. Surely, you’ve seen television shows in which someone is drunk, and their friends give them coffee to help them recover from drinking.
The reality is that caffeine doesn’t help someone sober up. In the case of an alcohol overdose or poisoning, there is very little that caffeine can do for a person. Caffeine has little to no effect on the metabolism of alcohol, and you cannot sober up by ingesting caffeine.
In fact, mixing caffeine and alcohol can be very dangerous, as the stimulant effects of caffeine can hide the depressant effect of alcohol, leading you to think you are soberer than you actually are.
It is a common piece of folk wisdom that coffee can help sober someone up, but this is a myth. Time is the only thing that can sober someone up. The body requires time to metabolize alcohol, and caffeine does not increase this rate.
That being said, it is important to understand why caffeine and alcohol do not mix well and why it is not advised to combine large quantities of the two.
Alcohol poisoning is a condition in which high levels of alcohol in the blood begin to affect important parts of the brain. When alcohol levels are high, alcohol from the blood seeps into the spaces between brain cells. The presence of alcohol between brain cells interrupts neurotransmitters and electrical communication between neurons. This interference is what causes the symptoms associated with drunkenness; i.e., slurred speech, lowered inhibitions, slower reflex times, etc.
In general, alcohol intoxication can be mild and not incredibly dangerous. However, excessive alcohol levels can slow the activity of neurons responsible for critical bodily functions like breathing, heart rate, and digestion. Acute alcohol poisoning is very serious due to the risk of death from respiratory failure or aspiration of vomit. Symptoms of acute alcohol poisoning include:
Caffeine is a stimulant that is classified as a methylxanthine. It is among one of the most common drugs in the world and known for its stimulating effects, which include reducing fatigue and drowsiness. It is commonly found in coffee, tea, and soda.
Caffeine works in the brain by blocking the action of adenosine, a chemical that is responsible for promoting sleep and suppressing arousal. Caffeine has a handful of positive effects and has been shown to be an effective treatment for increasing respiration and alleviating low blood pressure levels. It is also shown to be effective at increasing cognitive performance, including reaction times, concentration, and motor coordination.
When caffeine is used alone, the risks will only present themselves when used in excess. Caffeine can contribute to high blood pressure and migraines in some people. Additionally, it can exaggerate insomnia and anxiety.
When you consume caffeine, it stimulates the central nervous system (CNS) and brain. It affects the body by making you feel more alert, and once it is consumed, it goes from the bloodstream into your liver. The liver then breaks down the caffeine.
Caffeine alone isn’t going to cause any adverse effects; however, when it is used in conjunction with alcohol, problems can present themselves.
The main reason you should not mix caffeine and alcohol is because of the opposing effects of stimulants and depressants. The stimulating effects of caffeine can hide the depressant effect of alcohol, leading a person to subjectively judge themselves as more lucid than they actually are. Because of this, they are likely to underestimate how drunk they are and drink more alcohol, which increases the risk of alcohol-related harm.
In addition, caffeine does not reduce the depressant effects of alcohol. Alcohol affects inhibitory and activation components of behavior, while caffeine affects activational components only. The result is that adding more caffeine does not reduce the effects of alcohol, but introducing more alcohol does reduce the stimulating effects of caffeine. Several studies show a link between binge drinking and frequently mixing alcohol and caffeine.
Additionally, frequent mixing of caffeine and alcohol can increase alcohol dependence. Ingesting caffeine makes one more likely to drink larger amounts of alcohol than they would otherwise.
Over the long run, this will lead to an increased dependence on alcohol. This compounding effect is one reason why many countries have laws limiting the sale of beverages that contain both caffeine and alcohol.
Generally, alcohol poisoning is caused by excessive recreational drinking, though it can be caused by accidental ingestion of ethanol through household products. In general, the liver is able to metabolize one serving of alcohol per hour, where one serving is understood as:
Poisoning from alcohol slows brain communication, irritates the bowls, causes violent shaking, and inhibits autonomic functions like breathing and heartbeat.
The most common sign of acute alcohol poisoning is severe confusion/disorientation. Further ingestion of alcohol can lead to unconsciousness and unresponsiveness.
If you think someone may have alcohol poisoning, seek immediate emergency medical attention. Common folk wisdom may say that food, coffee, and other medications can alleviate the symptoms and treat alcohol poisoning, but this is not true. In fact, giving someone with alcohol poisoning a drug like caffeine can worsen symptoms by making the person more dehydrated.
If someone has alcohol poisoning, call 911, and follow these steps:
If someone you know has alcohol poisoning, be sure not to do any of the following things:
The only way to prevent alcohol poisoning is to keep a close eye on your alcohol consumption. General guidelines suggest an absolute maximum of two drinks per hour, though less is desirable. Other steps you can take to reduce the risk of acute alcohol poisoning are:
Experiencing alcohol poisoning does not necessarily mean someone has an alcohol use disorder, though those struggling with alcoholism do have an increased risk of alcohol poisoning. If you suspect someone or yourself of having an alcohol abuse problem, consider reaching out to an addiction specialist or residential treatment center.
These are some valuable facts you must remember about alcohol and caffeine:
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Chronic Disease. from https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2015/15_0290.htm
Web MD. Drunk? Coffee Won’t Get You Sober. from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/news/20091210/drunk-coffee-wont-get-you-sober
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact Sheet: Alcohol and Caffeine. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/caffeine-and-alcohol.htm
Caffeine. (2019, April 30). from https://medlineplus.gov/caffeine.html
Ferré, S., & O'Brien, M. C. (2011, September). Alcohol and Caffeine: The Perfect Storm. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621334/