On college campuses, caffeine is the wonder drug of choice. How does it work, and what are its side effects?
Buzz Buzz Buzz Ready for some coffee?
Specifically, some talk about what’s in coffee, and hundreds of other beverages: caffeine, the chemical that replaces the body’s need for sleep so you can make it through finals week.
Dozens of new products debuted this year that are hypercaffeinated, often advertising twice the stimulant of a cup of coffee or a glass of soda. In fact, just about every beverage is available caffeinated these days, even water.
That thrills some die-hard caffeine addicts. “Caffeine helps me to be more active, both physically and mentally,” said Andrew Krend, a sophomore computer science major at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
When’s enough enough? When we discovered a coffeehouse in Arlington, Va. that makes four-shot espresso drinks with pre-caffeinated water, we knew it was time to find out whether it’s possible to caffeinate the human body beyond its capacity.
The Science Lesson
Caffeine is a bitter-tasting chemical found in more than 60 plants, including coffee beans, tea leaves, kola nuts and cocoa beans. It can also be made synthetically.
Caffeine affects the body because it is similar in shape to a brain chemical called
adenosine, which works to slow down the central nervous system. Because of its similar shape, caffeine competes with adenosine by trying to bond to the same places. When it succeeds, the brain doesn’t get adenosine’s slowing effect, and we feel the buzz.
Two other similar chemicals can have this effect. Theophylline has less of an impact on the central nervous system than caffeine, but it has a stronger effect on breathing and the heart. Theobromine has only a tenth of the effect of caffeine, but it can be found in larger quantities, particularly in chocolate. A cup of cocoa may have only a few milligrams of caffeine but over 200 milligrams of theobromine, making it a light jump roughly equivalent to a typical soda.
Before you compare your caffeine consumption with your roommate’s, remember that caffeine doesn’t affect everyone equally. Some people naturally experience minimal effects from caffeine, while others can go hyperactive almost just by looking at a can of Jolt. Acquired tolerances will also affect this. “If you leave caffeine out of your diet, than one can [of soda] will do it for you,” said Michelle Voelker, a registered dietitian with Sue Roberts Health Concepts in Des Moines, Iowa.
Despite the focusing buzz of caffeinated beverages, the drug won’t sober you up. While it does stimulate the brain, it doesn’t speed up the liver’s ability to metabolize alcohol.
Is Caffeine Safe?
The good news for caffeine drinkers is that early studies linking caffeine to cancer have been withdrawn, and more recent ones haven’t shown that caffeine consumption causes long-term health problems. On the other hand caffeine hasn’t been shown to have any long-term benefits, Voelker said.
There are specific concerns, however. Caffeine can make high blood pressure worse, stimulate ulcers and cause negative effects in newborns because caffeine will enter the placenta. Plus, caffeine is a diuretic — it pulls water out of the body, which means the body needs more sleep and more water to rejuvenate. “In the long run, it defeats the purpose of drinking caffeine to wake up,” Voelker said.
Robin Speicher, a family nurse practitioner at Drake University’s American Republic Student Health Center, said that very few students come in with health problems that are a direct result of consuming too much caffeine. It’s more likely that caffeine is an aggravating factor in sleep problems and stomach conditions, she said.
There’s another problem with drinks like coffee and colas: caffeine is rarely the only ingredient. The oils that exist naturally in coffee, for example, may be the culprit for higher rates of heart disease among coffee drinkers.
New natural products may solve some of those problems. Guarana, a berry that grows in the Amazon rain forest, is three to five percent caffeine. Numerous guarana beverages have been introduced, from small companies up to Pepsi’s ill-fated Josta brand. Though most have a fruity flavor, they all claim to offer the benefits of caffeine without shakes or jitters.
Because caffeine is a drug, addiction, withdrawal symptoms and overdoses are possible. “I have a need for it, maybe physically, definitely mentally,” Krend said. “I have a soda or coffee as soon as I wake up, and keep up the caffeine in my system right up until I go to bed.” Krend said he averages about 600 mg a day, mostly in soda form supplemented with coffee and caffeine pills. That’s only three to six cups of coffee — a 7 oz. cup of drip coffee contains between 115 and 175 mg of caffeine, according to sources.
A rapid reduction in consumption can cause headaches, nervousness and irritability. “Finals week last quarter, I got the shakes real bad and decided to cut the caffeine for a few days,” Krend said. “I felt bad and didn’t do too well on my finals. On the last day of finals I had a quad mocha and kicked ass on my computer science final. Three days without caffeine — it sucked.”
Overdoses can have effects as simple as the shakes or restlessness, but the effects can go much deeper. A 250 mg dose in a very short period can also cause nausea, headaches, tense muscles, sleep disturbances and irregular heartbeats. Over 750 mg can cause delirium, light flashes and ringing ears. Finally, extreme doses (about 10 grams for an average-size person) are fatal.
Death by caffeine doesn’t happen often, though, since it would require 100 shots of espresso in a fairly short time period.
Not everyone will need caffeine by the potful to get the drug’s effects. Angela Bogden, a Russian Language major at Ohio State University, said she usually drinks one cup of coffee in the morning and a soda in the afternoon, but she feels it when she misses them. “When I need more caffeine, my body tells me with an excruciating headache and unusual sleepiness in the middle of the afternoon,” she said. “I’ve tried more sleep, but when your body is used to caffeine, no amount of sleep is ever enough.”
To more easily break a caffeine addiction, reduce consumption slowly. Withdrawal symptoms will be minimized if not eliminated. Voelker also recommended switching over to more effective ways of getting energy — sleeping enough, eating right and drinking enough non-caffeinated fluids.
In moderation, caffeine is probably safe. “In a pinch, caffeine is not that bad once in a while,” Volker said. So, chug away. Just don’t forget to crash in that nice bed every couple days as well.