Are Coffee, Tea and Caffeine Healthy?
Are We Addicted to Coffee and Tea?
Caffeine addiction is not like an addiction
to alcohol and cigarettes. Coffee, tea and caffeine from other sources does not induce continual cravings or cause us to develop a tolerance. In fact caffeine is not an addictive drug (surprise!).
When we crave that morning cup of coffee, tea or caffeine from soda we are actually seeking a feeling of alertness. Once properly awake, the urge for these beverages disappears. The desire may come back at the end of a large lunch. The carbs in the meal make tryptophan (the sleepy amino acid) available to the brain and that leads to difficulty concentrating after lunch. A dose of caffeine is a good antidote!
We tend to want caffeinated products when confronted with a task that is likely to put us to sleep—a boring class, a long meeting or when we have to work at night. Our desire for caffeine is linked to a need or desire to stay alert. When was the last time you wanted a caffeinated beverage just before bed?
Benefits of Caffeine
There has been a lot of research done on caffeine over many years. There is no conclusive data that showing that caffeine in reasonable doses leads to any health problems. In fact some studies have linked coffee intake to improved health. Coffee and tea provide some antioxidants just like fruits and vegetables. Due to the scarce amounts of fruits and vegetables consumed by many people coffee and tea can help fill a nutrional gap.
Studies on caffeine have shown that it improves cognition and athletic ability. Runners and test takers performed better after consuming caffeine. Many athletes consume caffeine before exercise. There are even special caffeinated gels made for that use. Here is an article discussing that in more detail: Caffeine and Exercise.
Troubles with Caffeine
Caffeine has downsides. People get withdrawal headaches and are irritable for some days if they stop their caffeine intake cold turkey. More importantly caffeine can kill you. It would take 75-100 cups of coffee drunk in a short period of time to make a lethal dose. You can’t kill yourself by drinking espresso but caffeine powder is much more potent: less than a tablespoon is enough to kill the average man.
Adding caffeine when drinking a lot of alcohol makes one an alert drunk—one who feels less intoxicated but who is still just as impaired. Caffeine can’t sober one up. And worse, because coffee blocks the buzz and stupor of alcohol, it is easy to drink more and develop alcohol toxicity. Alcohol and caffeine should not be mixed. Malt beers with caffeine have been banned because they lead to too many emergency room visits.
The average person can
clear their body of most of the caffeine from a cup of coffee in 5-6 hours. Smokers are faster, needing only 2-3 hours. Some people are sensitive to caffeine and clear it more slowly; caffeine may still be in their systems 11-12 hours later. Pregnancy and oral contraceptives slow the rate of caffeine clearing. It can take up to 15 hours before the caffeine is eliminated from the body in late pregnancy.
People with a normal caffeine metabolism and a usual caffeine habit can tolerate around 400 mg of caffeine a day without problems. That is about four shots of espresso. Pregnant women should limit themselves to only 200mg a day. To the right you see various ways to get 100 mg of caffeine and here is a link to a longer chart of caffeine in various foods.
When people consume too much caffeine, they develop a feeling of restlessness, anxiety, excitement, insomnia, muscle twitching and a rapid heart rate. These are not pleasant experiences and the vast majority of people self-regulate their intake to match their tolerance. They find their sweet spot where they are alert without feeling jittery! That perfect level is different for each person.
The actual amount of caffeine in coffee and tea varies a lot. The list on the right shows the average amount of caffeine. Just like the heat of hot peppers, caffeine content differs depending on the species and how they are grown. The caffeine content of coffee, tea, and chocolate varies; but not that of sodas or other caffeine fortified products. The variation is due to the caffeine in the specific beans and leaves as well as the brewing time and water temperature. It varies from day to day. The caffeine content listed at Starbucks® is an average number and when their coffee is tested the numbers differ a lot. If you think a cup of coffee has extra kick you may be right!
During my college days I was very foolish. On test days I felt nervous and would skip my morning cup of coffee thinking it would calm me down. Big mistake! I developed a headache that vanished five minutes after I had a diet Coke—clearly a caffeine withdrawal headache. And because I had the diet Coke after my test I missed out on the caffeine boost to my cognitive abilities. Could I have been an A student if I hadn’t skipped that morning coffee?
Caffeine is the most widely used drug and like all drugs it has benefits and drawbacks. Fortunately a reasonable caffeine habit seems to be beneficial to our sense of well being and health.
How are you using caffeine to boost your alertness and performance?