Caffeine: Wonder Drug or Health Drag

By JustMommies staff

Caffeine is one of the most commonly ingested substances in the world. Think about it: could you imagine starting the morning without a cup of coffee? In fact, there’s a good chance you’ve got a cup next to you while you’re reading this. But even if you’re not a coffee drinker, it’s likely you’re taking in a hearty dose of caffeine during the day, as it’s a common ingredient in tea (including many green teas), cola-flavored soda, energy drinks, over-the-counter weight loss supplements, chocolate and even some medications. Even decaffeinated coffee has small amounts of caffeine - 5-10 cups of decaf has about the same amount of caffeine as 2 cups of regular coffee. So caffeine intake seems unavoidable our day-to-day lives – but is this good news or bad news?

Positive Benefits of Caffeine

Caffeine is an organic compound naturally found in coffee, chocolate, tea and, to a much lesser extent, some other foods. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, which is one of the reasons coffee became such a popular morning drink – the energy boost it gives can be a good way to get the day started. The caffeine in coffee and other food products can help you stay alert and awake and concentrate better on the tasks at hand. Caffeine is added to many over-the-counter headache and prescription medications, as it can increase their effectiveness and help the body absorb the medications more quickly. Caffeine is used sometimes in combination with antihistamines, to offset the drowsiness they can cause. Caffeine intake might also aid in reducing muscle pain and soreness during exercise. And while there is little definitive proof, some research studies have suggested that caffeine might help reduce the risk of certain ailments, including type 2 diabetes, liver disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Negative Side Effects of Caffeine

While some studies illustrate caffeine’s potential benefits, others point out the downside of caffeine consumption. There’s a flip side to caffeine’s stimulant properties, in terms of increased anxiety and sleep disturbance and deprivation. Children are particularly sensitive to this, so they should stay away from caffeinated soft drinks and especially energy drinks, which often have higher-than-usual levels of both caffeine and sugar. Caffeine use can result in a temporary increase in blood pressure and heart rate, which is not a problem for most people, but can present difficulties for people already suffering from hypertension (high blood pressure). It can also exacerbate symptoms in people with stomach issues such as ulcer disease, gastritis (hyperacidity) and acid reflux. And caffeine may lower bone density in women who don’t get enough calcium in their diet. (You can offset this by taking calcium supplements.) Pregnant women should avoid or severely limit their caffeine intake, as it has been potentially linked to increased chance of miscarriage and other risk factors during pregnancy.

Moderating Caffeine Use

For most healthy adults, moderate caffeine intake won’t present any harmful side effects. So it’s okay to have a cup or two of coffee or a cola-flavored soft drink during the day. That will afford you the stimulant benefits of the caffeine but none of the potential hazards. If you want to cut down on caffeine, you shouldn’t throw away your coffee mug and try to give it up “cold turkey,” as this could result in withdrawal-like symptoms such as headache, fatigue and anxiety, which could last for a day or more. Start by combining regular and decaffeinated coffee in the morning, then slowly taper down the amount of regular in each cup. Also, pay attention to caffeine content in other food products and medications.