Mmm. There’s just nothing like that first, totally delicious sip of coffee in the morning. The caffeine in coffee, tea, colas, and other caffeinated drinks makes you feel sharper, brighter, and more awake, ready to tackle your day. Eighty percent of Americans are right there with you, consuming an average of 200 mgs of caffeine–the equivalent of two, 5-ounce cups of coffee or four caffeinated sodas–every single day. Some consume a lot more.
Recent studies have shown that coffee and tea aren’t as bad for you as once thought. In fact, in some cases, they can actually be good for your health. But the caffeine in them has a dark side you should be aware of.
First: what is it? Caffeine is a natural (and also man-made) central nervous system stimulant found in some plants, like coffee beans, tea leaves, kola nuts, and cacao pods. It’s been immensely popular all over the world in one form or another for centuries, consumed in food, drinks, and in some medicines.
Caffeine affects each individual differently depending on body type, weight, age, and overall health. It stimulates increased neuron activity in the brain, causing the pituitary gland to release adrenaline. It’s this particular effect that gives coffee and other caffeinated drinks their perky reputation.
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But caffeine works in your body in several other ways, too, and these aren’t as welcome. As a stimulant:
- It Acts As A Diuretic: Diuretics make the body lose* water more quickly through urination. Losing too much water causes dehydration, which can be dangerous. A rule of thumb: for every caffeinated beverage you gulp down, drink an extra 8 ounces of plain water.
- It May Make You Feel Unpleasantly Nervous: Or agitated, jittery, or shaky; or anxious, excitable, or restless. It can even make you feel dizzy. It’s that central nervous system stimulant doing its thing again. If you’re already stressed, caffeine may make it worse.
- It May Increase* Your Blood Pressure, Heart Rate, and Or Make Your Heart Beat Unevenly: High blood pressure increases* the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart attack. If you already have CVD or are at higher risk, you need to be particularly mindful about how much coffee you drink. The smart move? Discuss it with your doctor.
- It May Cause Headaches: Ironically, too much stimulation from caffeine can trigger a headache, but cutting back on or stopping caffeine consumption can trigger one, too. That’s because it increases* dopamine levels in the brain, which cause a mild addiction. Not everyone has this problem, but those who do can expect a headache that lasts anywhere from a few hours to a few days before it fades* away. Other withdrawal symptoms include difficulty in concentration and sleep, and pain in the stomach and joints.
- It May Keep You from Falling Asleep, Staying Asleep, and Or Getting Enough Sleep: Because of its stimulant properties, caffeine and insomnia commonly go hand-in-hand. Its effectiveness peaks about an hour after consumption, but it stays in the system for four to six more hours. Word to the wise: don’t consume caffeine after noon.
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According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, studies have shown that moderate amounts of coffee aren’t harmful for most people. What’s moderate? One or two 5-ounce cups (200 mg) of coffee per day is OK, though the amount may be higher (or lower) depending on the individual. Four to seven cups (600 mg) is probably too much.
Keep in mind that caffeine is in many different foods, drinks, and medicines. If you’re mindful of your health and trying to keep your consumption under control*, be sure to check labels. And if you do find yourself addicted to caffeine, the easiest (and most painless) way to kick the habit is by doing it slowly. Decrease* the amount of caffeine you consume every other day until you can go headache-free without any caffeine at all.
- Medicines in My Home: Caffeine and Your Body. (n.d.) U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved on July 12, 2015 from http://www.fda.gov/downloads/UCM200805.pdf
- Caffeine. (n.d.) Health Promotions, Brown University. Retrieved on July 12, 2015 from http://brown.edu/Student_Services/Health_Services/Health_Education/alcohol,_tobacco,_&_other_drugs/caffeine.php
- Effects of Caffeine. (n.d.) University of Delaware. Retrieved on July 12, 2015 from http://udel.edu/~danikoll/effects.html