A two-part series on caffeine

Cup of Joe isn’t helping your mojo? Maybe that’s because too much of it may be doing you more harm than good.

Caffeine, a basic chemical compound that is bitter to the taste, acts as a stimulant of the central nervous system and as a diuretic.

Cheap and readily available, it is most commonly found in soft drinks, diet pills, chocolate and of course, coffee.

In addition to being an early morning pick-me-up, it is used by students, athletes and teachers alike, to produce clear, rapid thought, and keep fatigue at bay in order to perform better and stay awake longer.

Many students at Concordia, like journalism student Eric St-Pierre, use caffeine for that extra boost.

“I used coffee to keep me awake and focused so I could study longer,” St-Pierre said. “When I started to feel tired I knew it was time for some more. It did what I wanted it to do.”

But, over a short period of time, St-Pierre said he needed more cups of coffee and eventually other caffeine products to get the same result.

“I was skipping lunch and replacing it with coffee. It got to a point when I realized that I was having only one meal a day and eight to ten cups of coffee.”

St-Pierre was studying full-time and was President of the Loyola International College Student Association. He was also volunteering for the Political Science Student’s Association.

“By my third year of university, I was balancing a full-time schedule and working part-time In a way the coffee I was drinking helped,” he said. “It kept me up and helped me through my busy schedule. Caffeine seemed to help but after a few months I was always feeling exhausted.”

St-Pierre recalled that once, during a 48 hour marathon session to finish a 40-page thesis, he drank eight pots of coffee, and then slept, on and off, for two days. When he woke up he felt as if he had never slept.

Over the following six months, he awoke every morning feeling tired and wanting more sleep. It took over 10 cups a day to keep him awake – several cups in the morning and several more cups in the afternoon.Studies are suggesting that people are drinking more than they need. On average, Canadians consume 210 to 239 milligrams of caffeine a day, more than twice the international average of 76mg.

When Statistics Canada surveyed university students in 2005, it found an average daily caffeine consumption of 422mg, way over the maximum recommended daily intake of 300mg.

This can lead to long-term negative health effects, outweighing the short-term benefits said Linda Senecal, a Montreal psychologist with her own stress-management practice. Senecal said that many of her patients consumed large amounts of caffeine as a way to calm their nerves but that “it had the opposite effect.”

When she began her career treating patients with stress-related illnesses she didn’t think twice about recommending they cut back on caffeine as a way to reduce stress.

“Too often we eat or drink on auto pilot and we associate food with certain activities or even times of the day,” she said. And it’s easy to lose track of just how much coffee one drink.

Caffeine: good and bad

Too much caffeine may cause surface blood vessels to contract and blood pressure to rise. As a result, less blood flows to the stomach, the adrenal glands secrete faster and more sugar is released into the bloodstream by the liver. Some doctors have likened it to a “fight or flight” stress response.

Eventually, someone who drinks large amounts will crash when the stimulating effect subsides, bringing anxiety, headaches and nausea, as well as disrupted sleep patterns.

But could caffeine be good for you? That depends on how much you ingest and who you trust.

In a 2005 study, researchers at Austria’s Innsbruck Medical University found that caffeine revs up brain areas tied to short-term memory.

Florian Koppelstaetter, MD, studied about a dozen healthy adults and found that caffeine boosted activity in brain regions related to attention and short-term memory. Other research suggests that regular doses of caffeine can reduce the risk of developing asthma.

In Scotland, caffeine has been used to treat asthma since at least 1859 when French Novelist Marcel Proust wrote that as a child in the 1870s, he used caffeine to help him breathe.

Drinking coffee also might help protect against Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cirrhosis. And it might improve bone health and strengthen the body’s immune system.

In moderation, it may help to sharpen the mind and elevate energy levels through the body but Senecal warns that “taken in large doses, and over a period of time, it invites adverse effects.”

An eight ounce cup of brewed coffee contains anywhere from 50 to 100mg of caffeine per serving, which makes it just a mild stimulant.

But caffeine is considered a drug (the most used drug in the world) by the Federal Drug Administration.

However, it is not considered a dangerous one because moderate consumption of caffeine shows no signs of life-threatening side effects.

Read part two of Richard’s story in next week’s issue.

Related Posts