Weighing in on caffeine: are you addicted?

Modern life is faster-paced than ever, and as a result, people are now turning to caffeine to keep up with their demanding schedules. Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant today, popular among all age groups. Presently, about 54% of American adults have an average of 3 cups of coffee per day. These statistics make it pretty clear that we are, as a nation, dependent on coffee. Do you need your coffee to wake up in the morning? I know I do! Worse yet, do you rely on energy drinks from time to time? This article will give you something to think about as you drink your morning cup, and who knows, maybe even give you the motivation to limit your caffeine consumption.

Nowadays it’s pretty hard to get away from caffeine; it’s in almost everything from soft drinks to chocolates, even to bottled water, gum, and medication! Caffeine is naturally derived from a variety of plants including the coffee bean, tea leaf, kola nut, and cocoa bean; in nature, caffeine often acts as a natural pesticide. In the USA, the top three caffeine sources are coffee (70%), soft drinks (16%), and tea (12%). With consumption being so common, it’s important that consumers understand the risks involved with too much caffeine.

So what actually happens when we drink a cup of coffee? Caffeine is absorbed quickly in our digestive tract, and it is absorbed faster in warmer beverages, making coffee more potent than soft drinks. In just 15–29 minutes, peak blood caffeine concentrations are reached. About 99% of the caffeine ingested is absorbed within 45 minutes. It moves throughout the body, penetrating cell membranes, crossing the blood-brain-barrier, and so on. The duration of efficiency is dictated by a number of things. The following are some striking examples. In males, the duration is decreased by 30–50% in smokers. On the other hand, it's doubled in women who are on birth control pills or pregnant and also in patients with ongoing liver disease.

Caffeine doesn't accumulate in body tissues and is eliminated overnight. Some metabolites associated with caffeine do however remain, examples include theobromine, paraxanthine, and theophylline—they are actually found in all body fluids. Caffeine induces a variety of effects including increased alertness, increased respiratory and metabolic rates, and vasodilation. These effects make caffeine a good go-to pick-me-up.

Since Red Bull's introduction in 1987, energy drinks have become more and more popular each year. Energy drinks are now the fastest growing beverage market in the states; about $744 million was spent by consumers in the USA between 2006 and 2007 (a 34% rise from the previous year and 200% from 2000!). Energy drinks have become a yearly $3.5 billion industry. Developers market their products to students, athletes, youth, and people who lead high-stress lifestyles. These drinks have no age restrictions or health warnings, and have addictive properties.

The U.S. FDA reports that 300–500mg of caffeine consumption is safe as a daily intake. With the rise in popularity of energy drinks, caffeine consumption is frequently much higher. This problem is enhanced by the aggressive marketing of energy drink producers as well as the poor risk awareness of consumers. An overdose can cause things like panic attacks, hallucinations, seizures, heart arrhythmias, psychosis, and sometimes (but rarely) death. More common features include anxiety, insomnia, digestive upset, tremors, etc.  A sensitization of the cannabinoid receptors (similar to morphine, heroin, cocaine and alcohol) to decrease stress may also occur with ongoing consumption; this may enhance caffeine dependence. The addictive nature of caffeine as well as our increasingly busy lifestyles and chronic fatigue, possibly due to our westernized diets, are driving forces for the rise in caffeine consumption.

A typical energy drink may report to have up to 300mg of caffeine. However, caffeine from herbal supplements including cocoa, kola, yerba mate, and guarana isn’t required to be included in nutrition facts. Varying energy drinks can actually contain caffeine anywhere from 50 to 550mg per can! The FDA is responsible (by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act) for ensuring all ingredients in products sold are safe and properly labelled. Despite this, it isn't mandatory to include caffeine content or the health risks associated with caffeine. Labels should be enforced to include health warnings and maybe even poison control numbers. 

Think you’re addicted and want to cut back? Firstly, withdrawal symptoms may occur when dependent on coffee. These symptoms include fatigue, headaches, irritability, muscle stiffness, etc. The best way to minimize these symptoms is to cut back slowly; maybe take out a half or full cup a week. If you drink caffeinated coffee, maybe opt for a decaf coffee or tea. Keep in mind these symptoms won’t last; in no time you’ll be waking up without the extra boost of caffeine. Try to get in a good night’s sleep instead to get more energy; it helps if you’re consistent with your bed times. When you wake up, drink water and don’t lie in bed when the alarm rings, get right up! The morning is also a great time for exercise! Cutting down on caffeine can be hard, but your body will thank you when you finally kick it to the curb!

Gunja N, Brown J (2012) Energy drinks: health risks and toxicity. doi: 10.5694/mja11.10838.

Persad L. (2011) Energy Drinks and the Neurophysiological Impact of Caffeine. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2011.00116.

Rath M. (2012) Energy drinks: What is all the hype? The dangers of energy drink consumption. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-7599.2011.00689.x.

See this and other articles on Jennifer Novakovich's website JennovaFoodBlog.com


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