What is Caffeine?
Caffeine has been called the most popular drug in the world. It is a natural stimulant found in the leaves, seeds or fruit of plants, including coffee, tea, cola and energy drinks – making it one of the most widely used drugs in the world. Additionally, it is manufactured and used as a food additive in a variety of colas and soft drinks. Certain over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, such as antihistamines, pain relievers, and cold remedies also use caffeine. Many of the “energy drinks” that are now on the market contain at least as much caffeine per serving as an 8-oz. cup of brewed coffee. Whether it’s from an energy drink, a can of soda, a chocolate bar, or a cup of coffee, American adults consume a daily average of 200 mg of caffeine; that’s equal to about two cups of coffee per day. Out of a population of 300 million, approximately 165 million regularly consume caffeine. This represents about 55% of the population.
Effects of Caffeine
Caffeine produces a variety of short and long-term health effects. For healthy adults, the benefits are numerous. Along with caffeine’s main appeal of greater alertness and energy, there are ample findings that reveal other positive effects. Findings suggest that caffeine reduces the risk of Parkinson’s disease and type 2-diabetes. A French study showed a slower decline in cognitive abilities among women who consumed caffeine. In small quantities, caffeine can relieve migraines and enhance the pain-reducing effects of aspirin or other pain relievers, and is believed to help lessen the symptoms of allergy and asthma sufferers. Caffeine also increases dopamine production, a chemical that improves feelings of well-being. This increased dopamine explains the mood enhancing effects of this natural stimulant.
In most cases, moderate caffeine consumption poses no real risk to the general population. However, for those who are more sensitive to caffeine, even a small amount could cause a variety of adverse effects such as insomnia, headaches, irritability, restlessness, hallucinations and nervousness, and increased urination. Additionally, caffeine has been shown to inhibit absorption of iron and calcium and has a diuretic effect, which may lead to fluid loss. Constriction of blood vessels can also occur when caffeine is ingested, which can cause poor circulation. Diabetics are often cautioned to avoid caffeine because it leads to an increase in blood sugar. Finally, it should be noted that women of childbearing age are at increased risk of possible reproductive effects of caffeine.
Although extremely rare, a fatal caffeine overdose is possible. The lethal dose in humans appears to be about 5 to 10 grams, however toxic symptoms may appear with lower doses. Symptoms of caffeine poisoning include tremors, nausea, vomiting, and irregular or rapid heart rate. In extreme cases, delirium or seizures may occur, which can result in death due to the inability to breathe. In less severe cases, high doses of caffeine have been associated with panic attacks.
Caffeine’s Effect on the Digestive System
Caffeine has been shown to cause diarrhea and constipation. When used in moderation, caffeine can act as a mild laxative and may induce diarrhea. However when used in excess, it can interfere with the normal functioning of your bowels, leading to constipation. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), says caffeine’s diuretic effect leads to dehydration, which in turn can cause or aggravate constipation. Another common effect of caffeine on the digestive system is nausea, especially if ingested on an empty stomach. Caffeine may also lead to more serious stomach problems. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at the University of Toronto, excess caffeine consumption in coffee can lead to stomach ulcers.
Caffeine and Children
Although safe to consume in moderation, caffeine is not recommended for children. Compared to the general adult population, children are at increased risk for possible behavioral effects from caffeine. One such reason is that caffeine has the potential to negatively affect a child’s nutrition by replacing nutrient-dense foods such as milk. In addition, a child may also eat less because caffeine acts as an appetite suppressant. It is therefore believed that caffeine can be safely eliminated from a child’s diet since there is no nutritional requirement for it.
For those concerned about caffeine’s side effects and want to quit, findings suggest a gradual weaning program. By slowly reducing the amount of caffeine consumed daily, the magnitude and frequency of withdrawal headaches may be significantly reduced, and even avoided. Finally, consider seeking alternate methods such as exercise and healthier diets to improve your energy level.
Written by Ian Cohen
© March 2011 – H.I.C. Digestive Health
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Effects of Caffeine
www.pe2000.com/caffeine.htm: How Caffeine Effects Your Body, Mind & Emotions
www.overcaffeinated.org: The Short and Long-Term Effects of caffeine on the Body
www.everydayhealth.com; What are the Physical Effects of Caffeine?