Caffeine: to consume or not to consume?

Caffeine is a DRUG – a stimulant which makes you more alert and active. It is addictive, like any drug, and this makes it a must for those of us who are totally hooked. There is much debate about the harmful and beneficial health effects of this narcotic – the following outlines both sides of the argument. Before anyone begins a caffeine addiction self help program, let’s examine the facts…

Facts on Caffeine

Caffeine is a chemical found in the following plants: coffee (Coffea Arabica and Caffea Canephora being the most common types), the tea plant, cocoa pod, the kola nut and guarana (which contains the highest levels of this chemical).

It is most commonly consumed in coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate products and energy drinks. It is also used in medications such as weight loss pills, non-prescription pain relievers and stimulants, like No Doz.

Levels in the Diet

The level of caffeine in chocolate products compared with caffeine products varies greatly, with the former containing much lower amounts than the latter. For example, a 250ml glass of chocolate milk contains 2-7mg of this stimulant, while the same quantity of medium strength tea is between 65-105mg and instant coffee is 80-120mg. Filter drip coffee (250ml) contains the highest levels of caffeine at 150-240mg.

Physiological Effects

Caffeine is an easily absorbed substance because it is fat soluble. This means that it passes effortlessly through the cell membranes in the body going directly into the bloodstream via the gastrointestinal tract. Once ingested it takes between five and thirty minutes to circulate around the body. It has three main physiological effects:

  • Caffeine blocks adenosine reception in the brain. Adenosine is the hormone which promotes sleep, so by inhibiting the effect of this it keeps caffeine users awake and alert.
  • It releases adrenalin, which prepares the body for greater physical activity by increasing blood pressure, the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles.
  • It also increases the levels of dopamine – a naturally occurring ‘feel good’ hormone. Other amphetamine (i.e. stimulant) drugs, like heroin and cocaine, have the same physiological effect. It is believed that the elevation of dopamine levels is what makes caffeine addictive, but nowhere near as harmful as the other drugs mentioned above.

Moderate, regular caffeine consumption (between 200 and 400mg per day) can cause addiction. Once addicted, attempting to stop using caffeine does have certain physical and psychological side effects: headaches, fatigue, sweating, muscle pain, anxiety, depression and irritability. These withdrawal symptoms can take up to thirty-six hours to overcome.

Detrimental Health Effects:

Sleep

One of the long-term consequences of caffeine consumption is its impact on sleep. The specific effects are the following: it increases the length of time it takes to fall asleep (up to two hours for caffeine users compared to half an hour for non-users); it decreases the overall amount of sleep and diminishes the quality (i.e. depth) of sleep. The results of insomnia can lead to poor concentration, less effective task performance and irritability. Individual differences play a role in the overall effects of caffeine on sleep as some are more sensitive to the drug than others.

Osteoporosis

Caffeine does cause the loss of small quantities of calcium in the body. However, this does not affect everyone and a glass of milk a day is enough to replace what is lost.

High Blood Pressure, Heart Disease and Cholesterol

Caffeine does elevate blood pressure and increase the heart rate but this is not a problem for most people. For those who already have these health issues only LARGE amounts of caffeine can exacerbate the problem. Consistently high blood pressure causes the arteries to harden making it more difficult for blood to flow around the body, which makes the heart pump more vigorously (i.e. putting more stress on this organ which is already struggling in those with heart problems). Cholesterol is also a factor in heart disease and it has been demonstrated that when coffee is prepared a certain way (e.g. boiled) this can increase cholesterol levels in the blood by 15 per cent especially in those who already have this health problem. Filtered coffee, however, creates little, if any, increase in cholesterol levels.

Fatigue and Depression

Once the adrenalin surge from caffeine consumption dissipates it creates fatigue and depression. The way to alleviate these effects in the short-term is to have more caffeine.

Fertility and Pregnancy

It is possible that high doses of caffeine make conception difficult in both men and women. During pregnancy it is recommended that women use little or no caffeine as it has been linked to difficult births, low birth weight babies and miscarriages.

Beneficial Health Effects:

Asthma and Other Breathing Problems

Caffeine is used in the treatment of asthma and when people cannot breathe effectively for other reasons (e.g. a drug overdose or when babies stop breathing) because it increases the levels of oxygen in the body. It responds to the higher amounts of carbon dioxide (which is meant to be exhaled) by elevating their rate of breathing.

Medication

Caffeine helps to speed up the effects of certain medications thus bringing on faster pain relief. It is also useful in weight loss medicines as it quickens the rate at which food is converted from fat into energy, as well as stimulating the body to use more energy.

Cancer and Heart Disease

It is possible that caffeine can prevent these diseases as it blocks an enzyme associated with cell growth. In this way, it shuts down the rapid cell growth in cancer and assists in averting the blood clots which cause heart disease.

Skin Conditions

It has been shown that caffeine is effective in the treatment of certain skin fungi (i.e. dermatitis).

Other Health Benefits

Regular, moderate coffee drinkers (one to three cups per day) have a better chance of avoiding conditions such as, diabetes, colon cancer, cirrhosis (disease of the liver), gallstones, Parkinson’s disease and (possibly) Alzheimer’s disease (this may require the consumption of up to five cups of coffee a day). The preventative effects of coffee may also be contributed to other healthful compounds in coffee beans – the jury is still out on the benefits of this beverage in relation to these health conditions.

Conclusion

The benefits of moderate caffeine consumption seem to outweigh the detrimental effects. However, individual differences play an important role especially in relation to preexisting health problems and sleep. I cannot consume any caffeinated product right before bed as it will prevent me from sleeping for several hours. Others can have a very restful slumber straight after caffeine use, whilst more sensitive individuals cannot sleep at night due to the one cup of coffee they drink in the morning.

Ultimately, it is a person’s choice as to whether to consume any caffeine products, how often, what amounts etc. Personally, I have chosen to stick to my two to three cups of coffee a day, and, the occasional piece of chocolate.

Sources

Brasch N, 2003, Drugs in Australia – Caffeine, Melbourne, Echidna Books.

http://health.howstuffworks.com/caffeine.htm

Weinberg B.A. and Bealer B.K., 2002, The World of Caffeine – The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug, New York, Routledge.

 

© New Age Power (Helen Papadopoulos)

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