It’s six a.m. and 23-year-old Robin Harper reaches for the snooze button. Ten minutes pass before the alarm goes off again and the first thing Harper is thinking about is a pick-me-up.
As she staggers into the kitchen, it isn’t coffee she’s reaching for – it’s a Red Bull.
“Coffee comes later when I get to Concordia,” she said.
By the time the second year psychology student reaches her class she’s already had two Red Bulls and is starting on the first of four coffees she will have before noon. Harper isn’t alone.
Many students at Concordia can be seen clutching the signature silver and blue cans as they arrive to their morning classes. Energy drinks, like Red Bull, are fast becoming another stimulant of choice for students.
Introduced in North America in 1997, the Red Bull company opened its first offices in Canada in 2004. Red Bull spawned an entirely new category in the beverage business. It raked in 65 per cent of the $275 million wholesale revenues of energy drinks last year.
“Red Bull Energy Drink is for anyone who needs energy,” said a Red Bull spokesperson. “It gives you energy and vitalizes body and mind, improving concentration and reaction time.” And some students swear by it.
“It wasn’t uncommon to see my friends stocking up on Red Bull during exams,” said Harper. “But now it has become an everyday thing along with regular coffee intake or caffeine pills.”
Harper, who hopes to work in sport psychology, said that in an average day, she typically consumes seven cups of coffee and two or three cans of Red Bull. She used to take caffeine tablets, her favorite being the non-prescription NoDoz, which contain 200 mg of caffeine, but found it prevented her from sleeping.
“I still need Red Bull,” she said, “It’s the only way I can stay awake and study longer.”
Over time, Harper, like St-Pierre, found she needed more caffeine.
“It’s scary because I sleep no more than four hours a day,” she admits.
“When I do sleep, I crash and spend half a day in bed. When I wake up I reach for a Red Bull or else I’m just no good to anyone…I don’t sweat; I percolate!” It hasn’t helped her study, in case you’re wondering.
“I sit in front of the computer with shaky hands and stare at a blank screen and panic,” she said. “Reading is twice as hard. I just cannot concentrate.”
Another energy drink that has been showing up at Concordia is Nelly’s Pimp Juice. It is promoted by the company as a healthy, non-carbonated premium energy drink and the Pimp Juice company claims its product is for “all those who know pimp’n ain’t easy.”
What won’t be easy, in fact, is how your body reacts to just one 16 ounce can of Pimp Juice. A single can is packed with 200 mg of guarana caffeine, which experts agree is virtually identical to regular caffeine.
And, why not chew yourself awake? Icy Mint Jolt Gum has “icy freshness” plus caffeine, ginseng and more guarana caffeine. Two pieces equals one cup of coffee but you can expect the caffeine to reach you faster.
Even bottled water companies have jumped on the Java train. Buzz Water Caffeine Regular Natural Spring Water, has 200mg of caffeine.
While most makers of energy drinks such as Nelly Pimp Juice and Buzz Water will tell you how much caffeine is in their products, many other products do not have a label disclosing their caffeine content.
And for students wishing to cut down, this hidden caffeine can sabotage your daily count. It can also make it easy to consume large amounts of caffeine in a short time, something that can be hazardous to your health.
A dose of more than 4.5mg per pound of body weight, or 787.5mg per 175 pounds per day, can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, and muscle twitching, according to Health Canada study released in 2004.
Higher amounts can make you extremely agitated and give you tremors and a rapid and irregular heartbeat.
“Problems with caffeine is not a typical reason why students visit us,” said Owan Moran, a health educator at Concordia’s health services.
“But if someone is complaining about having trouble getting to sleep we may try to identify if there is an unhealthy relationship with caffeine.”
Moran said students are often misinformed about caffeine.
“Students think that staying awake longer will equal better grades, but research has shown that your memory is decreased when you are tired. Drinking coffee will just keep you awake longer when all you need is to get a good night’s sleep.”
Most dieticians and health educators suggest that the next time you’re tired of studying, just go to sleep. Sleep has been proven to help absorb information you have been reviewing the night before.
It is also important to understand that caffeine is not addictive. “The classical features of addiction do not happen with caffeine,” said Moran.
“The main feature of addiction is that it affects your life negatively. Does it affect your relationship with family or a spouse? No one has failed relationships or ends up in jail over coffee.”
Moran suggests that people have a psychological dependance on caffeine that leads them to think that the morning coffee is essential to get going. Senecal agrees.
“Your brain stores things in a way that makes life easy for you so if you do things in a certain manner a number of times your brain thinks this is how [it’s supposed to do] things.”
If you think you drink too much coffee try stopping for one or two days. “If you begin to experience headaches, jitters, or iritability then perhaps you should cut back,” suggests Moran. And he says cold turkey is not a good idea.
“Your body needs time to adjust,” he said. “Try mixing decaffeinated coffe with regular and over a few days, add more decaffeinated and less [caffeinated coffee]. Reduce how many cups you have each day until you are down to your desired goal.”
“It doesn’t mean you cannot drink coffee,” he adds. “You can drink it in moderation.” And St-Pierre took this advice. Whereas he used to top off at ten cups of coffee a day, he’s been relatively caffeine-free since June of this year. But he admits it was difficult.
“I decided to break the habit because I had no energy,” he said.
“I was drinking more coffee to get me through the day and I was complaining how tired I was. I knew I had to stop.”
St-Pierre finally woke up. Literally.
“In the first week I experienced some grogginess and some headaches. Then I began to notice I had more energy in the morning. I also noticed more energy in the afternoon. That probably came from the fact that I was sleeping better.”
St-Pierre won’t soon forget his fond attachment to caffeine, nor will he forget its effects.
“You feel so tired sometimes and when it comes to finding a lift you seek more caffeine from any source.”
As for Harper, she is on her third attempt to cut back.
“Caffeine withdrawal really hurts,” she said. “Sometimes I get this tingling sensation from my shoulders to about my knees, but when I drink caffeine the pain subsides.” Why did Harper decide to quit now?
“During final exams last year, I drank so much coffee and fell asleep during the exam. Can you believe that? I convinced the exam monitor to escort me outside so I could get a coffee from a machine I saw on the way in. When I got home I slept eighteen hours straight,” she said.
“And then reached for a Red Bull.”