The tricks and treats of caffeine

It’s getting to be that time of year—the temperature is dropping and our workloads are rising. What does this mean? It’s time for a nice, hot cup of coffee. Or two. Or three.

In its natural form, caffeine is found in coffee beans, tea leaves, and cacao pods (chocolate and cocoa products). Guarana seeds and the ilex plant from South America also contain caffeine, and are frequently used in energy drinks and the popular yerba mate drink. FYI, caffeine is also added to over-the counter medications like cough and cold medicines. Who knew?

Coffee, specifically caffeine, has proven effects on our physiology. It’s a known stimulant, much like methamphetamine, and it changes the way we operate in the short-term. Caffeine stimulates our central nervous system, raising our heart rates and respiratory rates. As a result, blood pressure is increased. So if you have any sort of a heart condition or anxiety disorder, be careful when consuming caffeine! You may experiences some nasty side effects.

Caffeine allows for messages to be relayed much more quickly along the central nervous system. Basically, it stimulates our brains and increases our mental activity. This is why caffeine increases our alertness, and makes us less fatigued. It also has proven effects of increasing our feeling of well-being and satisfaction, thanks to its ability to raise the availability of dopamine in our brains. Exercisers who used caffeine responded with increased endurance and decreased pain sensation.

So what’s not to love about this magical substance?

Consuming up to 300 mg of caffeine a day (about 2 cups of coffee) shouldn’t produce any negative effects unless you are particularly sensitive to caffeine. But we all know those java junkies who are best friends with the baristas, those who throw back that 5-hour energy shot halfway through the day, and the students who need their Red Bull to get through a night of studying. Although some may disagree, caffeine is an addictive substance, and our bodies do start to physically depend on it. Quitting suddenly can cause prolonged, throbbing headaches and irritability. Since caffeine has the effect of constricting blood vessels, the blood vessels dilating (relaxing) in our brains causes discomfort and intense, throbbing headaches.

And we all have friends we know to stay far away from before they’ve had their morning joe.

Consuming more than 300 mg of caffeine per day can cause irritability, restlessness, heart palpitations, nausea, vomiting, and trouble sleeping.

Urban myth holds that caffeine is a diuretic, which is technically true. But one would have to consume about 8 cups of coffee in one sitting to have the effect of a true diuretic. Still, drinking 8 oz of water for every cup of coffee isn’t a bad idea, since water is what we really need to keep all of our body systems (including our brains) functioning at the highest levels.

Some studies have shown that large amount of caffeine consumption is associated with loss of bone density. This is because metabolizing caffeine causes a small loss of calcium. You can counteract this by consuming a few tablespoons of low-fat milk for every cup of coffee you drink, which is (conveniently) a common thing to do anyway.

The bottom line is this: many beverages contain caffeine, including sodas, teas, coffee, and energy drinks. Watch how much caffeine you consume per day, and aim not to go above 300 mg. Best of all, listen to your body and pay attention to the reaction caffeine produces. Using caffeine to get through work and studying is fine, but it’s all about moderation. And remember, it takes about 4 hours to metabolize a cup of coffee, so try to not to hit the coffee bar too frequently.

Check out this link for a detailed list of caffeine content in common beverages.

Stay healthy! – gemma


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