Feeling cranky lately? Maybe you should assess your caffeine intake. A double latte on the way to work, another cup of coffee on your morning break, a soft drink for lunch, espresso in the afternoon and a couple of chocolate fixes along the way can wreak havoc with your physical and mental health.

Although it may seem harmless, caffeine is a drug which stimulates the brain and when it is used in excessive amounts it is addictive. Once ingested it is absorbed very quickly and is distributed throughout the body and into the brain. Caffeine increases the heart rate and can cause jitters, headaches, nervousness, irritability and mood swings. It also affects the quality of your sleep, preventing you from getting the rest you need to start the day refreshed and alert.

Caffeine is found in the leaves and seeds of more than 60 plants including tea leaves, coffee beans and cocoa beans. It is an ingredient in coffee, tea, chocolate, soft drinks, energy drinks and some medications. According to the National Coffee Association, Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee per day, making the United States the leading consumer in the world. Add to that the other caffeine-containing drinks and snacks that we ingest and the result is a national epidemic of caffeine addiction. The trend is especially troubling among teens who have embraced soft drinks and power drinks as essential parts of their daily routines.

To avoid a physical dependency, most health professionals recommend that you consume no more than 8-16 ounces of caffeine per day. If you are consuming more than that you should consider tapering off or even eliminating all caffeine from your diet. Like many things, that is easier said than done. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms can be troublesome and may include fatigue, irritability, lethargy and headaches. Fortunately they usually go away within a few days. If you decide to reduce, but not eliminate, caffeine you should have it early in the day so it won't interfere with your sleep.

Many people choose to gradually step down their use of caffeine by replacing caffeine-based products with decaffeinated substitutes. There are many delicious and satisfying alternatives. Herbal teas, especially green teas, provide vibrant flavor and also contain health-boosting antioxidants. Carob, which is low-fat and high in fiber, is a healthy substitute for chocolate. Carob bars, cookies and brownies can be found in health food stores.

Cutting down on caffeine may be easier if you change your routines. Instead of meeting friends at a coffee shop, join them for a low-fat smoothie or enjoy a walk together. If you must have a coffee "fix" then opt for decaffeinated versions of your favorite coffee drinks. Small changes can make a big difference when it comes to breaking your caffeine addiction.