Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash

Or am I just a jittery addict?

It was on a recent hiking trip that my addiction to caffeine came to a head. We’d reached our campsite for the afternoon, and whilst others were making themselves useful collecting firewood and setting up the tent, I was aimlessly wandering around, mind firmly on my ritual afternoon cup of tea that I was not going to be getting that day. Energy flagging, I realised just how much I’d come to depend on that afternoon pick-me-up.

Tea time turned to wine time and I eventually forgot about the tea, until I awoke the next morning at first light with the birds.

“Coffee” I thought to myself. The call for caffeine was louder than the previous day. You might say it was angry. Buzzing. Relentless. I spent that morning bleary eyed, tired and cranky.

As the day wore on I started to get a headache. I claimed I was dehydrated and tired, but deep down I knew it was the fact that I hadn’t had my morning latte. We reached the end of our hike and I was positively running down the hill to the nearest coffee shop before they closed for the afternoon to get my hit.

Luckily for all concerned, I reached the store just in time. Once in my hot little hand, the coffee reached my mouth and it had barely passed my lips before my headache disappeared. My entire body felt instantly more relaxed. The whole hike had been worth it for this moment. I realised I sounded like a drug addict. Turns out I was one.

Caffeine is the most socially acceptable drug there is, and the most consumed stimulant on earth. By the end of the hike I was going through an acute withdrawal.

This really got me thinking — am I consuming too much caffeine? What am I actually doing to my body? Is this bad for me? What will happen if doomsday comes and I can’t get a hit? Should I quit coffee?

Below are the fruits of my search on the matter — and as it turns out, I have been able to justify my habit to myself using science … along with some caveats.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

But firstly — what does caffeine do?

It targets central and peripheral adenosine receptors in our bodies, meaning that it’s acting directly on not only our brains, but on the rest of our bodies too. When caffeine stimulates these receptors, excitatory neurotransmitters are released.

This explains not only why caffeine will keep you *AWAKE AND WIRED*, but also why some people have a sudden rush to the toilet after their morning cup of coffee (caffeine is especially potent on the smooth muscle in our gut).

Reasons to keep drinking it…

  1. Increased mental alertness. In the short term, caffeine has been shown to increase cognitive performance in a variety of areas including learning and decision making. It can help improve performance in these areas even if a person is sleep deprived or jet-lagged.
  2. Caffeine has been shown in the short term improve reaction time and even athletic performance.
  3. Prevent Alzheimers Disease. The word is in, caffeine has been associated with a small protective effect against alzheimers disease. It’s been very trendy to bandy about this fact lately. All I’ll add to this is that there hasn’t been all that much research in this area, with only a FEW STUDIES published on the matter. And they aren’t really sure how or why this works. But It’s enough for camp coffee to take a small lead in my books.
  4. Your average cup of tea/coffee is full of antioxidants — specifically polyphenols, catechins and flavonoids (more on these another time)
  5. Prevent cancer. Polyphenols in coffee (as opposed to just caffeine) inhibit DNA methylation — this prevents tumour suppressor genes and DNA repair enzymes from being down-regulated. End result = prevention of carcinogenesis. There is some association between coffee consumption and a decreased risk in gastrointestinal and endometrial — these, however are weak. There is however, definitely a case for green tea and a risk reduction in prostate cancer.
  6. Alleviate chronic migraine. Caffeine in the short term is sometimes associated with headache — however trials have found that medication for treating migraine (acetaminophen, low-dose ibuprofen) when used in combination with caffeine are more effective than the medications when used alone.

But the clincher for me was this. Research has shown that drinking coffee may indeed make you live longer. A recent review of meta-analyses of multiple health outcomes showed a

“modest inverse relationship between coffee consumption and all cause mortality”.

In a nutshell, drinking coffee may increase your longevity over a wide spectrum of diseases. If that isn’t reason enough to keep drinking coffee, I don’t know what is. I will say, however, that this is true for coffee, and not just caffeine by itself. And as it turns out, it’s not all sunshine and daisies where caffeine is concerned.

So here are the caveats…

  1. If you’re stirring sugar in with your tea/coffee you’re reducing it’s antioxidative properties (sorry).
  2. Caffeine decreases the absorption of iron from your gut — so don’t have it along with your steak or your leafy greens (or even your multivitamin for that matter), especially if you’re iron deficient.
  3. Caffeine has real associations with mental health disorders. It has been associated with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and substance abuse disorders. If you’re already the anxious type, it can worsen not only mental symptoms, but physical symptoms such as tremor.
  4. Insomnia. Remember the part about caffeine stimulating the excitatory neurotransmitters in your brain? After a hit of caffeine these babies are bouncing off the wall keeping you awake at night.
  5. Caffeine withdrawral is real! Any of the following symptoms after not getting a hit could indicate you’re addicted and withdrawing: headache, drowsiness, low mood, irritability, tremors. These symptoms can occur even after not getting your morning cup of tea. After quitting caffeine, these symptoms can last for up to nine days.
  6. Increase in blood pressure. Usually this occurs in non-habitual coffee drinkers. The activation of the sympathetic nervous system is thought to be caused by compounds in coffee other than caffeine. But the moral is that it’s best to avoid coffee if you’re already feeling wound-up.
Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

How much should I be drinking?

For healthy adults, the recommended safe amount is less than 400mg of caffeine a day. Children and adolescents should be having less than 2.5mg per kilogram.

Caffeine content in your average cup:

  • brewed coffee 8oz (235ml)=~130mg caffeine
  • cup of instant coffee = ~90mg caffeine
  • shot of espresso = ~40mg caffeine
  • cup of tea = ~ 50mg caffeine

Note that I haven’t included data on caffeine in energy drinks — most the benefits listed above were attributed to the compounds in coffee and tea, not just caffeine alone. Energy drinks in my opinion are a a waste of space and I wouldn’t recommend them. The adverse effects of caffeine shouldn’t be taken lightly, and it is advisable to stick to safe levels of consumption so that the bad doesn’t outweigh the good.

Everything weighed up, I decided to take my longer lifespan (hopefully), and stay on the coffee train. I was, however drinking more caffeine daily than the recommended amount, and after cutting back a little bit, the cravings settled big time. The evidence isn’t all there yet, but in moderation, it’s looking good for coffee lovers. Watch this space for updates as they unfold.

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