The Highs and Lows of Caffeine

caffeine Many Americans regularly consume caffeine, the most widely used behaviorally active drug in the world. But does caffeine cause more than just a morning boost? Over the years, caffeine has been singled out as a possible factor in cancer and birth defects, among others. Here is a look at why most experts say that moderate caffeine intake is not a habit worth losing sleep over and advice for people who drink too much coffee and want to cut back.

What's New?

Energy drinks are the latest entry into the beverage market and perhaps the most potent way to get a caffeine fix. The popularity of these carbonated, caffeine-loaded drinks has skyrocketed since they first appeared on the market in 1997. They are particularly popular among the younger generation, including teenagers. Does the entry of another caffeine-containing concoction into the marketplace prove yet again that we are a nation of caffeine addicts?The US Food and Drug Administration monitors the harmful side effects of energy drinks. Although some were serious, energy drinks are safe. As with other forms of caffeine, moderation and common sense should be applied.

Can You Be Addicted to Caffeine?

In a manner of speaking, yes. The majority of Americans regularly consume caffeine, a drug that acts as a central nervous system stimulant. It increases heart rate, boosts urine production, and raises the metabolic rate. The metabolic rate is the speed at which the body burns calories to fuel necessary functions like breathing. Anyone who cannot get going in the morning without a cup of coffee, tea, or a caffeine-containing soft drink knows all too well that caffeine can be habit-forming.While most experts say addiction is too strong a word to be used with caffeine, researchers have identified a condition they call caffeine dependence syndrome. It is characterized by the following:
  • Withdrawal symptoms, such as headache, fatigue, and depression
  • Caffeine consumption despite causing physical or psychological problems or making them worse
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut back or control caffeine intake
  • Tolerance to caffeine—not getting the desired effect with typical consumption or the need to drink more to get the desired effect

Is It a Habit Worth Breaking?

The idea of being dependent on caffeine can be unsettling. However, most healthy people who drink a cup or two of coffee, tea, or soda every day suffer no more serious physical symptoms than jitteriness, irritability, and minor gastrointestinal upsets. Why, then, have scientists long suspected that caffeine might contribute to heart disease, cancer, birth defects, and other problems?The snag here is that much of the early research linking caffeine to various conditions was clouded by a number of issues. When questioning people about their caffeine-consuming habits, for example, many researchers failed to ask about caffeine sources other than coffee or tea, such as soft drinks, chocolate, and certain medications (see chart).In addition, most early studies did not account for differences in methods of preparing coffee. For example, some research has suggested that coffee drinking raises blood cholesterol levels. Yet most of that evidence comes from Scandinavia, where coffee is boiled rather than brewed.Another confounding issue is that even though caffeine and coffee drinking may not contribute to disease alone, they may go hand-in-hand with a lifestyle that does. One study, found that coffee drinkers were more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and eat high-fat diets than those who do not drink coffee. So maybe it’s not the coffee, but rather the cream or cigarette with the coffee that contributes to health problems.Recent studies have failed to link only consumption of caffeine to heart disease or death. In fact, many observational studies have suggested that caffeine consumption may actually lower the risk of cardiovascular events and death.

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