Got coffee?

When we were little tykes watching our parents drink coffee, they told us we couldn’t have any because the caffeine would stunt our growth. When we got a little older, they poured an ounce of coffee in a cup, filled the rest with milk, loaded in the sugar, and we thought we were big shots.  Later in the day, we may have drunk soda or eaten chocolate — which also have caffeine — but most of us grew up little the worse for the wear.

Adding to the mystery, the health benefits of caffeine often are touted, and myths abound about coffee’s healing properties for headaches, hangovers and as a tonic for keeping us awake. It’s easy to see why we grew up confused about this incredibly popular beverage.  So, is caffeine bad for us, and if so, why?

The answer, like the question, is complicated. But the bottom line is that – as in many things – moderation and information are the keys to healthy caffeine consumption.

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, alleviating fatigue, increasing wakefulness, and improving concentration and focus.  As a stimulant, regular use of caffeine does cause mild physical dependence. But caffeine doesn’t threaten our physical, social, or economic health the way addictive drugs do. For most healthy adults, moderate doses of caffeine – 200 to 300 milligrams (mg), or about two to four cups of brewed coffee a day – aren’t harmful. But some circumstances may warrant limiting or even ending our caffeine routine.

If you drink four or more cups a day, take note. Although moderate caffeine intake isn’t likely to cause harm, too much can lead to some unpleasant effects. Heavy daily caffeine use – more than 500 to 600 mg a day – may cause

  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Stomach upset
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Muscle tremors

Coffee and caffeine in other forms — such as in tea, soda and chocolate — may make us jittery. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than are others. If you’re susceptible to the effects of caffeine, just small amounts may prompt unwanted effects, such as restlessness and sleep problems.

How we react to caffeine may be determined in part by how much caffeine we’re used to drinking. Caffeine content can range from as much as 160 milligrams in some energy drinks to as little as 4 milligrams in a one-ounce serving of chocolate-flavored syrup. Even decaffeinated coffee isn’t completely free of caffeine. People who don’t regularly drink caffeine tend to be more sensitive to its negative effects. Other factors may include body mass, age, medication use and health conditions such as anxiety disorders or heart disease. Research also suggests that men are more susceptible to the effects of caffeine than are women.

Women who are pregnant often are advised to avoid or limit caffeine because some studies have indicated a higher potential incidence of miscarriage. People with high blood pressure should watch their caffeine intake, as it increases the risk of stroke; and because caffeine does act as a mild diuretic, it will cause us to urinate more often. But studies show drinking caffeinated drinks in moderation doesn’t actually cause dehydration, especially if we drink water and other liquids during the day.

And finally, as for stunting childrens’ growth, there’s an irony to that misconception:  The added sugar that children and many adults consume in flavored coffees and caffeinated energy drinks promotes obesity, and caffeine can aggravate anxiety or irritability, in children and in adults.

Caffeine and sleep

Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. But caffeine can interfere with this much-needed sleep. Chronically losing sleep – whether it’s from work, travel, stress or too much caffeine – results in sleep deprivation. Sleep loss is cumulative, and even small nightly decreases can add up and disturb your daytime alertness, overall health and performance.

Our body quickly absorbs caffeine. But it also gets rid of it quickly. Processed mainly through the liver, caffeine has a relatively short half-life. This means it takes about five to seven hours, on average, to eliminate half of it from our body. After eight to 10 hours, 75 percent of the caffeine is gone. For most people, a cup of coffee or two in the morning won’t interfere with sleep at night.

But using caffeine to mask sleep deprivation can create an unwelcome cycle. For example, we drink caffeinated beverages because we have trouble staying awake during the day. But the caffeine keeps us from falling asleep at night, shortening the length of time we sleep. Additionally, certain medications and herbal supplements may interact with caffeine, including some antibiotics and other specialty drugs, and certain herbal supplements like Echinacea, which people take to ward off colds.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about whether caffeine might affect your medications. He or she can say whether you need to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet.

Curbing our caffeine habit

Whether it’s for one of the reasons above – or because we want to trim spending on pricey coffee drinks – cutting back on caffeine can be challenging. An abrupt decrease in caffeine may cause caffeine withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, irritability and nervousness. Fortunately, these symptoms are usually mild and resolve after a few days.

To change caffeine habits more gradually, try these tips:

  • Note intake. Start paying attention to how much caffeine you’re getting from foods and beverages. It may be more than you think. Read labels carefully. Even then, your estimate may be a little low because not all foods or drinks list caffeine. Chocolate, which has a small amount, doesn’t.
  • Cut back. But do it gradually. For example, drink one fewer can of soda or drink a smaller cup of coffee each day. Or avoid drinking caffeinated beverages late in the day. This will help your body get used to the lower levels of caffeine and lessen potential withdrawal effects.
  • Go decaf. Most decaffeinated beverages look and taste the same as their caffeinated counterparts.
  • Shorten the brew time or go herbal. When making tea, brew it for less time. This cuts down on its caffeine content. Or choose herbal teas that don’t have caffeine.
  • Check the bottle. Some over-the-counter pain relievers contain caffeine – as much as 130 mg of caffeine in one dose. Look for caffeine-free pain relievers instead.

For most adults, caffeine is a part of our daily routine. And most often it doesn’t pose a health problem. But curtailing our caffeine habits can be better for our health – and our wallets!

# # #

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!