If you’ve ever tried quitting caffeinated coffee, you may have encountered side effects such as headaches, irritability and fatigue. A new study suggests that drinking decaffeinated coffee can reduce those effects … even if you know it’s just decaf.
Led by Dr. Llew Mills, a team of scientists at the University of Sydney started with a group of 61 “heavy coffee drinkers,” all of whom regularly consumed at least three cups of caffeinated coffee per day.
After going without any coffee for 24 hours, those people had their withdrawal symptoms measured. They were then divided into three groups: one was given water to drink, one was given decaf and told that it was decaf, and one was given decaf and told that it was regular caffeinated coffee – in other words, they were lied to.
When asked to rate their withdrawal symptoms 45 minutes later, the lied-to group reported the most pronounced reduction, presumably due to the placebo effect. That said, the group that knew they were drinking decaf still reported a significantly larger reduction than the water group.
This phenomenon, called the open-label placebo effect, occurs when something that is known to be a placebo still produces beneficial placebo-like effects. In the case of the known-to-be-decaf coffee, the scientists believe that after years of associating the taste and smell of coffee with a reduction in withdrawal symptoms, the test subjects had become conditioned to still experience a bit of that reduction – even though they weren’t expecting it.
While the open-label placebo effect wouldn’t be a long-term solution to caffeine withdrawal, Mills believes that it could help coffee-quitters ride out the worst of their cravings by having a cup of decaf. The team’s findings could conceivably also be applied to the treatment of other types of chemical addictions.
“This study shows cognitive factors like what you expect, and how much of a drug you think you have in your body, have a big effect on how you experience withdrawal symptoms,” said Mills. “We did this study to model some of the processes involved in addiction to any drug, including more serious, or harmful, drugs. What we found has some promise for developing new treatments for addiction that integrate placebo effects.”