Here’s How You Can Tell If You’ve Built up a Caffeine Tolerance—and How to Get That Buzz Back

Updated: Apr. 01, 2021

Believe it or not, if you drink too much coffee you might be missing out on its energizing effects.

No longer getting a hit from your morning cup of joe? Missing the burst of energy you used to get after your afternoon latte? While you can still get the health benefits of coffee like improved memory and protection from dementia, you might have built up a caffeine tolerance.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recommends that healthy adults consume no more than 400mg caffeine per day—that’s the equivalent of four eight-ounce cups of coffee per day. However, coffee, tea, and soda are not our only sources of caffeine. Chocolate, energy drinks, ice cream, weight-loss supplements, and pain relief medications may all contain caffeine.

Why do we crave our coffee?

“I often say caffeine can be a ‘drug in a mug’,” says Mandy Enright, a registered dietitian. “Caffeine stimulates your brain’s attention and concentration centers while acting as a receptor to a brain signaling molecule called adenosine,” she says. “Adenosine is a substance that can make you feel tired, which builds up during the day and eventually dissipates while you sleep.” Essentially, your body thinks caffeine molecules are binding to the parts of the brain where adenosine would normally attach to, causing increased alertness after drinking that cup of coffee. The downside to constant repeated exposure to caffeine causes the adenosine receptors to be less responsive to caffeine, and even develop more adenosine receptors, begging for more caffeine intake, Enright says. It’s this decrease in sensitivity that leads to caffeine tolerance.

How long does it take to build up a tolerance?

Caffeine tolerance can develop in three to five days when consumed regularly, according to registered dietitian nutritionist Malina Malkani. But both Malkani and Enright stress that it varies greatly between individuals. “Some people have genetic factors that cause caffeine to metabolize more quickly than others,” Enright explains. “Differences in weight can influence caffeine tolerance—the higher the weight, the more likely they are to have a higher tolerance. Smoking can cause caffeine to be metabolized twice as fast.” The amount and frequency of caffeine use and overall anxiety levels are other factors that impact how quickly you might develop a tolerance, adds Malkani, media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and creator of Solve Picky Eating.

How can I tell if I’ve built up a tolerance to caffeine?

The main clue you might have caffeine tolerance is that your morning cup of coffee isn’t giving you the same jolt of focus or vigor that you enjoyed previously. You might find yourself reaching for more to achieve the desired effects, according to Malkani. “You find you need more coffee to have the same effects,” says Enright. “And when the caffeine starts to wear off, headaches may occur instead.” Here’s what else happens to your body when you drink coffee every day.

How to get your buzz back

The good news for all you coffee lovers is that you don’t have to cut coffee out entirely. In fact, you should avoid doing this, particularly if you usually drink large amounts every day. “Withdrawal symptoms can include headaches, increased heart rate, anxiety, and irritability,” says Enright. So it’s gentler on the body to reduce intake slowly over time than to eliminate it altogether. “This slow reduction in caffeine intake may look different from individual to individual, but one example is drinking two cups of coffee per day instead of three for a week or so and then reducing to one cup per day for another week and none the next,” Malkani says.

How to avoid building up a tolerance

The key to avoiding building up a caffeine tolerance is “cycling” your intake, which means if you drink a high amount one day, reduce your intake on other days. “For example, instead of drinking four cups of coffee every day, have four cups one day, two cups the next, then one cup the next day, then none—or go back up to four cups if that is your preference,” suggests Enright. She also recommends making sure you don’t skip meals, as this can lead to low energy levels, and ultimately trigger that urge to reach for an additional cup of caffeine to get a boost of energy. Drink coffee with a meal instead of on an empty stomach to slow absorption and increase energy levels from food. In case you’re wondering: These are the signs you’re drinking too much coffee.