Can Decaf Coffee Have a Placebo Effect? (Fascinating Facts)

My wife’s old friend came to stay from Spain and made some decaf coffee without me knowing, and when I drank mine I definitely didn’t get my usual morning buzz. So much so that asked with disappointment, ‘is this decaf?’.

So is an uplifting placebo effect from drinking decaf coffee a common occurrence?

Some people do experience a placebo effect when they drink decaf coffee, getting that same stimulation they would from a genuine caffeine buzz. Research carried out in the US and UK found decaf coffee drinkers experienced more energy, boosted moods, and feelings of alertness after drinking decaf.

This is a fascinating subject, so let’s find out how strong this placebo effect is with decaf coffee, why we get it – and discover if caffeinated coffee can create a placebo effect too…

Can Decaf Coffee Have a Placebo Effect?

Is There a Placebo Effect With Decaf Coffee?

Apparently, some people do experience a placebo effect when they drink decaf coffee, getting that same feeling that they would from a genuine caffeine buzz.

There’s even been research carried out into the placebo effect of decaf coffee, which seemed to indicate that we get what we expect from our cup of joe, regardless of what’s in it (or not in it).

The most famous study was carried out in the UK in 2011. A group of regular coffee drinkers were given coffee, closely followed by an attention test.

Those who were told they were drinking caffeinated coffee performed better, even though it was actually decaf.

There was a similar study carried out here in the US more recently, with the participants reporting more energy, boosted moods, and feelings of alertness – after drinking decaf.

Why Do I Get a Buzz From Decaf?

So why do people feel more energized and alert after drinking decaf? The answer lies in our expectations, according to scientists.

As “proper” coffee drinkers, we’ve all experienced genuine caffeine hits. We all anticipate a bit of a buzz from our brew, especially that lovely first cup of the day.

This has programmed us to have certain expectations from our cup of joe, namely alertness, energy, and a general sense of feeling good.

If we’re given something that looks and smells like coffee, and then we’re told it’s coffee, we expect it to behave like coffee – and we behave like we’ve had a coffee. The placebo effect is powerful indeed.

Does Decaf Coffee Still Have Stimulants?

Despite the name, no cup of decaf coffee is 100% decaffeinated. In fact, your typical decaf blend still has about 3% of its original caffeine remaining, and this is the case with any of the four main decaffeination methods.

However, the amount of caffeine remaining in your decaf coffee really is tiny. A typical cup of decaf contains around 2 mg of caffeine, while the same size cup of regular coffee has about 95 mg. That’s a huge difference. 

It’s worth noting that decaf coffee still contains many of the good chemicals naturally found in regular coffee, as these aren’t harmed by the decaffeination process.

Decaf coffee still has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, helping to reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, colon cancer, and strokes.

You may have heard that caffeine releases dopamine, the “feel good” hormone, and most coffee drinkers will tell you that they certainly feel better after a good brew! Does decaf coffee have the same effect?

There’s a lot of debate on this. However, because dopamine is released when you’re enjoying something, surely a good cup of decaf will still do the trick?

Pleasant aromas are a big dopamine trigger, and good-quality decaf smells every bit as good as its caffeinated cousin does. 

If you want to know more about the clever ways that caffeine is carefully extracted from the natural beans, take a look at this short film about how decaf is made.

Should I Drink Decaf if I Have Anxiety?

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that caffeine isn’t the best chemical to consume if you’re struggling with anxiety.

The less-pleasant symptoms caused by a caffeine rush (lightheadedness, dizziness, panic, nausea) are uncomfortably similar to those of anxiety or panic disorder.

If you have a diagnosis of anxiety disorder, or you sometimes struggle with overwhelm or panic attacks, you may feel a bit calmer if you avoid caffeine.

Switching to decaf may not improve your existing symptoms, but it certainly won’t add to them, which is what regular caffeinated coffee can do.

Decaf still has positive health benefits, as the decaffeination process doesn’t remove the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the natural coffee.

All the decaf process does is remove most of the caffeine from the bean, also removing the risk of those anxiety-like symptoms.

And of course, decaf coffee tastes and smells great! Without the caffeine, you’re left with a warm and comforting brew, which could actually feel calming rather than stimulating.

At the very least, reduce your caffeine intake later in the day if you find you’re having trouble sleeping. Lack of sleep and anxiety are closely linked; and switching to decaf at least six hours before bedtime will ensure that there’s no caffeine left in your system.

If you tend to suffer badly from side effects such as the caffeine shakes or feelings of lightheadedness, then you might also need to avoid decaf.

Some people even have an allergy to caffeine, which can manifest itself in hives, swollen mouths, or in extreme cases, even in anaphylactic shock.

In these cases, even that little remaining 2 mg of caffeine may be too much, and you might want to switch to a completely caffeine-free brew. Go for naturally caffeine-free hot drinks like herbal tea or a fruit infusion.

Why Do I Get a Buzz From Decaf?
Why Do I Get a Buzz From Decaf?

Is There a Placebo Effect With Caffeinated Coffee?

We know that the coffee seed (commonly known as the bean) naturally contains caffeine, which evolved as an insect repellent.

We also know that caffeine affects its human consumers by blocking the adenosine receptors in the brain and making us feel more awake.

The stimulating effect of caffeine is a scientific fact. This naturally occurring chemical has a direct effect on our neurotransmitters, making us feel less tired and more alert. The effect of caffeine on our systems generally lasts around six hours.

Having read that, it seems pretty clear cut that actual, regular coffee has a genuine impact on how we feel.

Probably most of us have experienced the effect of a strong coffee first thing in the morning, or regretted that after-dinner cup as we lie wide awake on the wrong side of midnight.

However, as the research into the placebo effect of decaf coffee has shown, we’re certainly prone to exaggerating the effects of our favorite brew. Maybe our alertness after that morning espresso is part chemical and part learned behavior?

Ultimately, just so long as I get a proper cup of joe with caffeine in it then the world’s still all right with me. 🙂