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Caffeine: Harmful Chemical or Healthy Pick-Me-Up?

Choosing whether or not to go caffeine-free? Discover the benefits and harmful effects of caffeine.

green tea_caffeine_tea leaves_picCaffeine is without a doubt the most widely and acceptably used recreational “drug” out there. It is found in a host of products many of us consume daily such as coffee, tea, chocolate, soda, and energy drinks. And with today’s common problems of fatigue, caffeine is even making its way into unexpected products like peanut butter! With all this caffeine in our daily lives, it makes sense to wonder if it is actually a good thing or a bad one, and which sources are the most beneficial or least damaging to our bodies.

The Good

Caffeine occurs naturally in many very healthy foods and beverages. Green tea, for example, has been shown to reduce oxidative stress, decrease chronic disease risk across the board and slow the aging process (1). Coffee and chocolate (when consumed without added sugar and fat) are also rich in minerals and antioxidants. Caffeine has also been shown to enhance exercise performance by increasing strength output, stamina, and focus while reducing fatigue (2). This spells harder, more effective workouts which will lead to faster progress in the gym. Also, caffeine increases your metabolic rate, which makes it easier to create a caloric deficit if you are trying you reduce your body fat level (3).

The Bad

energy drink_can_picThe first thing to note is that while many healthy foods naturally contain caffeine, it is also added to far more unhealthy products. Drinking high sugar sodas or eating energy bars for their caffeine content is not going to benefit your health. Energy drinks likewise are often laden with chemical additives and artificial colors and flavors you may want to avoid. In addition to this, caffeine is a habituating substance, meaning that your tolerance increases with regular use until you have a dependency (4). What may be improving your performance and perking you up today could be required just to function normally in a few weeks. Also, being a stimulant of the central nervous system, caffeine increases the risks of both insomnia and anxiety, so if you are prone to either condition, you should be cautious (5,6). Caffeine has also been implicated in interfering with bone mineralization (7), so anyone with a family history of osteoporosis should take note. Lastly, caffeine may be harmful to infants and unborn children (8), so pregnant and nursing women are discouraged from consuming it.

As with most things in life, the answer to this question isn’t black or white. Caffeine consumption has some benefits as well as some risks, particularly for certain populations. If you are a healthy non-pregnant individual, consuming moderate amounts of caffeine on a regular basis from whole food sources such as green tea and coffee will likely cause no noticeable negative effects. Doing so will also improve your exercise performance if you consume it pre-workout, and may help your weight loss goals. Just take care to avoid caffeine if you are at risk of any of the above conditions, make sure to take in extra water to avoid dehydration, and if possible take a few days off on a regular basis to avoid building a dependency.

(1) Beneficial Effects of Green Tea - A Review

(2) Multiple Effects of Caffeine on Simulated High-Intensity Team Sport Performance

(3) Effects of Caffeine Ingestion on Metabolism and Exercise Performance

(4) Caffeine Dependence Syndrome: Evidence from Case Histories and Experimental Evaluations

(5) Dose-Related Sleep Disturbances Induced by Coffee and Caffeine

(6) Psychotropic Effects of Caffeine

(7) Coffee Consumption and Risk of Fractures: A Meta-Analysis

(8) Moderate to Heavy Caffeine Consumption During Pregnancy and Relationship to Spontaneous Abortion and Abnormal Fetal Growth: A Meta-analysis

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