How Healthy and Safe is Caffeine, Really?
It’s a familiar morning routine for most of us: Roll out of bed and drag ourselves straight to the coffee maker.
And with an estimated 90 percent of the world’s population consuming it daily, it’s no surprise that caffeine isn’t just an occasional treat for most people – it’s a habit.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that a lot of us rely on caffeinated coffee for a jolt – and many people claim they can’t make it through the morning without it.
Even if you’re getting plenty of sleep, you probably still have a diet rich in caffeine, whether in the form of coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks, or chocolate.
There’s little doubt that caffeine can serve as a quick pick-me-up. And a wealth of studies do support its reputation as a temporary mental energy booster.
But how healthy and safe is caffeine, really?
The Best Part of Waking Up?
We typically think of coffee beans as the main source of caffeine. The truth is, caffeine is found in the beans, leaves, and fruit of more than 60 plants, including coffee.
And humans have been ingesting those plants in search of caffeine since the Stone Age! (Coffee, on the other hand, is pretty new in comparison: Its first recorded use came in the 16th century.)
The biggest benefit of caffeine is also its most obvious: As any coffee lover can tell you, a cup (or several) can make you feel more awake and aware.
But that isn’t just lip service. There’s plenty of research to back it up.
For example, one study of 48 people looked at the effects of a beverage containing either 75 or 150 mg of caffeine. Researchers found that those who consumed caffeine at either dose had significant improvements when their reaction times were tested.1
Another small study of 12 men and women found that those who took 200 mg of caffeine in capsule form were more alert and performed better on tests, even if they were already well rested.2
And another study showed that caffeine appeared to improve cognitive function in regular coffee drinkers.3
A Real Pain…
There’s another surprising benefit of caffeine. Used correctly, it appears to ease the pain of migraine and tension headaches, especially when combined with pain relievers like aspirin.
A number of studies suggest that caffeine – alone and in combination with pain-relieving drugs – can help ease the pain of migraine and tension headaches.
In one review of 30 clinical trials involving over 10,000 patients, the authors concluded that 40 percent higher dosages of aspirin, acetaminophen, or salicylamide would be needed if they were not given in combination with a small dose of caffeine.
Studies have also investigated the efficacy of caffeine intake by itself, in treating acute pain. In a study of 53 patients with headaches, caffeine appeared to have an independent pain-relieving effect: 65 mg of caffeine were just as effective as 648 mg of acetaminophen in relieving headache symptoms.
In fact, the FDA has approved caffeine for use in some prescription and over-the-counter pain relievers.
The Bitter Truth…
Clearly, caffeine is an effective way to wake up and may even act as medicine.
But is it safe?
Scientists believe that caffeine blocks receptors in the brain and releases chemicals that stimulate the central nervous system.
The result is less drowsiness, lower physical fatigue, and higher mental awareness – temporarily, at least.
Sounds good, right? But this process is very similar to what the body undergoes during stress.
See, caffeine increases levels of the hormone epinephrine. This, in turn, stimulates your sympathetic nervous system, leading to an increased heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to muscles. It decreases blood flow to skin and inner organs. And your liver dumps glucose.
This is the same process that occurs when your body reacts to a perceived threat – your “fight or flight” response, in other words.
It’s like facing a saber-toothed tiger every single morning!
Say No to Joe?
It’s no wonder that the constant stress response that caffeine triggers can cause a host of unpleasant side effects, including insomnia, nervousness and restlessness, stomach irritation, nausea and vomiting, increased heart rate and respiration, tremors, chest pain, and ringing in the ears.
If you consume a lot of caffeine, these symptoms may start to seem normal. But they aren’t.
In fact, in extremely high doses, caffeine can even be fatal, although this is rare.
And if you think caffeine is safe for everyone – well, think again.
Caffeine can worsen conditions like anxiety, bipolar disorder, high blood pressure, glaucoma (a heart condition) and irritable bowel syndrome.
Plus, it may interact with a slew of medications such as anticoagulants, antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, adenosine (used during heart tests), Phenobarbital (used for seizures), and stimulant drugs (such as Sudafed), as well as supplements that contain ephedrine, bitter orange, guarana, or kola nut.
If you do consume caffeine, be informed.
Avoid caffeine in supplements and over-the-counter energy boosters, and limit your consumption of caffeinated beverages, many of which can be quite high in this substance.
For example, one cup of brewed coffee provides from 95-200 mg of caffeine. An 8-ounce serving of black tea provides from 40-120 mg of caffeine. An 8-ounce serving of green tea provides 15-60 mg of caffeine.
Soft drinks such as cola provide from 20-80 mg of caffeine per 12 ounce serving. Sports or energy drinks typically provide from 48-300 mg of caffeine per serving.
If you consume a lot of caffeine and want to cut back, try weaning yourself rather than going cold turkey, which can cause headaches, nausea, and irritability – all unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that should put to rest any doubt that caffeine is addictive!
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1 Haskell CF, Kennedy DO, Wesnes KA, et al. Cognitive and mood improvements of caffeine in habitual consumers and habitual non-consumers of caffeine. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2005 Jun;179(4):813-25.
2 Michael N, Johns M, Owen C, et al. Effects of caffeine on alertness as measured by infrared reflectance oculography. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2008 Oct;200(2):255-60.
3 Tieges Z, Richard Ridderinkhof K, Snel J, et al. Caffeine strengthens action monitoring: evidence from the error-related negativity. Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2004 Sep;21(1):87-93.
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