Tuesday, May 6, 2008 • Caffeine – another legal way to get high

Publisher’s note: This story originally appeared in the Tuesday, May 6, 2008 edition of the Lassen County Times.

Caffeine is a natural chemical found in tea leaves, coffee beans, cacao (the stuff used to make chocolate) and cola nuts (the plant that gives cola soda its flavor). The coffee and soft drink industries, the world’s two largest producers of caffeine-laden products, have invested billions of dollars in the continued production and consumption of their products. According to one source, coffee is the second most widely cultivated crop in the world.

Caffeine has been in foods that humans eat and drink for hundreds of years. Today, caffeine is found in many common foods and drinks, such as coffee, tea, hot cocoa, soda, chocolate and some medicines. However, let’s not forget caffeine itself is really a drug. A member of the methylxanthine family, caffeine attaches to the same cell receptor sites as heroin and cocaine.  It acts as a stimulant and may make you feel more awake and alert. But no one needs caffeine, especially kids.

Nine out of 10 Americans consume some type of caffeine regularly, making it the most popular behavior-altering drug. People who drink caffeine every day may start to depend on it. If regular caffeine users don’t get their daily dose, they can develop headaches, stomachaches and feel sleepy or grumpy.

For most adults, moderate doses of caffeine – 200-400 milligrams or about two to three 8-ounce cups of brewed coffee a day or one tall Starbuck’s latte – aren’t harmful. But some circumstances, such as caffeine sensitivity or use of certain medications, may warrant limiting or even ending your caffeine consumption. It is difficult to link precise intake levels of caffeine to specific health effects because tolerance to caffeine differs widely.

Caffeine and adults
Caffeine has been shown to accelerate destruction of glucosamine in the body’s cartilage. When your body is young, this does not have an immediate impact because the body is still able to manufacture its own glucosamine. But, starting at around age 40, the body stops manufacturing glucosamine. Any cartilage destroyed by caffeine after this age is permanently lost unless replaced by nutritional supplements.

Long-term studies have also shown that continued caffeine use decreases bone mineral density in women, who are a higher risk for osteoporosis as they age. Caffeine is also a powerful diuretic, causing the body to excrete twice as much water by volume as the amount of caffeine consumed.  Since most people do not drink enough water as it is, this adds dramatically to the problem of dehydration.

Long-term use of caffeine has also been shown to negatively impact memory and cause the brain to release stress hormones, which decrease insulin sensitivity in the body. When insulin sensitivity decreases, blood sugar is less available to the cells of the body for producing energy. This is particularly detrimental to people with diabetes.

Caffeine and kids
Caffeine has the ability to make your heart pump faster and breathing quicken. In kids, it may make them feel hyper and be hard to concentrate in school. While caffeine can boost a person’s energy temporarily, a lot of caffeine can cause kids to feel nervous or jumpy, make their hands shake and make it hard to fall asleep at night.

Because caffeine is not a nutrient, like calcium, kids don’t need it in certain amounts to be healthy. The United States doesn’t have guidelines about caffeine, but Canada does. That country recommends kids who are 10-12 years old get no more that 85 milligrams a day, equal to 22 ounces of caffeinated soda or one half of a tall Starbucks Java Chip Frappacino. But that does not mean soda or coffee is a good idea for kids.  The sugar content of soda and blended coffee drinks alone makes them a bad choice for people of all ages. Stick with milk and water for kids the majority of the time.

If kids consume soda once in a while, try to choose one that doesn’t contain caffeine. Clear lemon-lime and root beer sodas usually don’t contain caffeine, but check the ingredient label to be sure. As for Starbucks drinks, all of their nutritional information, including caffeine content, is available on their Web site and in pamphlets at every location.

When to cut caffeine use
While small amounts of caffeine for adults and no amount for kids are ideal for optimal health, certain specific circumstances call for reducing the amount of caffeine you consume. Heavy caffeine use of more than three cups a day, can noticeably affect your health and can cause restlessness, anxiety, irritability, muscle tremors, sleeplessness, headaches, nausea, diarrhea or other gastrointestinal problems, and abnormal heart rhythms.

You have caffeine sensitivity if you are susceptible to caffeine’s effects in just small amounts. The more sensitive you are, the less you need to consume before feeling its influence. Sensitivity depends on many factors, such as, body mass – smaller bodies will feel the effects sooner, history of caffeine use – regular consumers tend to be more susceptible to negative effects, and stress – psychological or heat stress can increase sensitivity to caffeine.

Other factors can contribute to variations in caffeine sensitivity as well, including age, smoking habits, drug or hormone use and health conditions, such as anxiety disorders and sleeplessness. Caffeine should be avoided eight hours before your desired bedtime. Your body doesn’t store caffeine but it does take many hours for it to eliminate the stimulant and its effects.

Certain medications, including some antibiotics, and herbal supplements, negatively interact with caffeine.  Check with your doctor if you consume more than the average 2-3 cups of coffee a day.

How to curb caffeine
Caffeine can be habit-forming and addictive. Attempts to stop or lessen your consumption can be very challenging. An abrupt decrease in caffeine, as with any addictive drug, can cause withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, irritability and nervousness. These symptoms usually resolve after several days.

Start by gradually reducing the amount of caffeine you consume. Drink one less soda or drink a smaller cup of coffee each day. Replace caffeinated drinks with their decaffeinated counterparts. Brew tea for less time to cut down on caffeine content or choose herbal caffeine-free teas. Check the caffeine content of over-the-counter medications, especially children’s medicine. Pain relief and headache medications such as Excedrin can contain from 65 mg to 130 mg of caffeine in one dose. Switch to caffeine-free versions, if possible.

Most healthy adults can drink moderate amounts of caffeine and not have any side effects or related health problems. But be mindful of those situations in which you need to curtail or eliminate your caffeine consumption.