The Daily Grind

With a Starbucks on virtually every corner and consumers ready to pay upwards of five dollars for a grande mocha latte, coffee is a thriving business. But is all that caffeine good for us?

It takes approximately 80% of the adult population to guzzle the 100,000 tons of caffeine consumed annually in the U.S. This common ingredient in coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate products is the world’s most widely used stimulant. In fact, coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world behind petroleum.

Introduced to Europe by Venetian traders, the first English coffee house was opened in 1652. From the very beginning, marketers touted the supposed health benefits of the drink, heralding it as “a very good help to the digestion.”

But doubts were also voiced, and coffee drinkers were said to appear haggard, agitated and depressed. From those initial observations sprung a plethora of studies on everything from the effects of caffeine on frog muscle tissue to the link between caffeine and decreased fertility.

To Drink or Not to Drink?

Sensitivity to caffeine differs greatly from one person to the next. Studies of twins have found that there is a genetic component to how caffeine affects an individual’s body, and of course, tolerance develops with regular use.

Depending on who is doing the study, caffeine can look like an addictive, sleep-robbing stimulant or an FDA-approved cure-all. Most research agrees that caffeine in low doses can increase alertness and decrease fatigue and drowsiness. There is also some evidence that low to moderate caffeine consumption (less than three cups of coffee a day) may help protect against neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Consumed in higher doses, however, caffeine may promote headaches, mood swings and anxiety. Drinking five or more cups of coffee per day can cause irritability, insomnia, restlessness, and muscle tremors.

How to Cut Back on Caffeine

The prolonged consumption of caffeine can cause physical dependence, and withdrawal symptoms such as headache, lethargy and depression may result from going cold turkey. If you do decide to omit caffeine from your diet, it would be less stressful to wean yourself off gradually to diminish the withdrawal response.

Medical experts agree that caffeine consumption is safe in moderation and produces no adverse health effects. If you find that the symptoms of caffeine overuse are troublesome, try cutting back on your intake. Here are a few ways to decrease your dependency:

1. Try drinking decaffeinated coffee at least some of the time. Alternatively, switch to half-caff, pouring yourself half a cup of regular and half a cup of decaffeinated.

2. Be aware of the pitfalls of free caffeine refills in restaurants. It may seem like a good deal, but you could pay for it later.

3. If you have an ever-brewing coffee pot in the office, limit yourself to just a few cups a day—or switch to herbal tea, which doesn’t contain caffeine.

4. Make a conscious choice to drink more water. Your thirst will be quenched and the water will dilute the caffeine, helping detoxify the body.

While caffeine alone causes little or no ill effects, it will interact with some medications. If you’re a heavy coffee drinker or consume large amounts of caffeine in other products and are taking a prescription drug, you should check with your pharmacist for possible side effects.

For more detailed information on caffeine, check out “Caffeine Fact & Fallacy” by Augustine S. Aruna.


Image credit: Amanda via Flickr (CC)

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