If you find yourself needing that cup of coffee before you start your day, you are not alone. Every day, about 90 percent of Americans consume caffeine in some form. More than half of the adults in the country consume 300 milligrams a day, making it America’s most popular drug.
That’s right, a drug.
Scientists have classified caffeine as a psychoactive drug that can alter moods and behavior. Known medically as trimethylxanthine, caffeine in its pure form is a white, bitter tasting powder. While it is naturally found in chocolate, coffee and tea, caffeine is also added to many soft drinks and medications.
How Caffeine Affects Your Body
Caffeine is a mild stimulant of the central nervous system and can be found in over 60 species of plants. It affects you in a similar way that amphetamines, cocaine and heroin stimulate your brain. Although it has a much milder effect, caffeine has the same addictive qualities as these other drugs.
Caffeine temporarily blocks adenosine, a chemical in your body that promotes sleepiness and muscle fatigue, resulting in an energy boost or heightened alertness. The drug can also increase your heartbeat and metabolism as well as cause you to produce more stomach acid and urine.
You start to feel caffeine’s effects about 30 minutes after you consume it. It is not broken down by stomach acids and is readily absorbed by blood vessels in the lining of the stomach and intestines. Caffeine distributes to all body tissues, including those in the reproductive system. In pregnant women, like any other ingested drug, it crosses the placental barrier to the unborn child; in nursing mothers, it is secreted through breast milk.
Caffeine does have benefits, but consuming too much can be harmful. What constitutes “too much” is typically 300 mg a day, but other factors such as your weight, body size and other health conditions can also determine how caffeine affects you.
Many prescription and over-the-counter drugs contain synthetically prepared caffeine because it increases the effectiveness of painkillers and helps the drug take effect faster. This type of caffeine is an ingredient in stimulants, pain relievers, diuretics, cold medicines and weight control products.
It is used in headache and migraine medications because it constricts the dilated blood vessels in your head that cause the pain, bringing quick relief.
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Consume Caffeine in Moderation
Like any other drug, caffeine should be taken in moderation. Prolonged caffeine consumption can affect your mood and overall health as well as:
- Decrease your body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients, especially iron
- Cause sleep problems – one strong cup of coffee within an hour before you go to bed may cause you to take longer to fall asleep and can shorten the length of your sleep. Light sleepers may find they move around more and do not feel rested when they wake up
- Cause your stomach to retain its digested contents longer and worsen already existing stomach problems such as ulcers
- Trigger an irregular heartbeat
- Cause panic attacks – after heavy doses of caffeine and after many hours of it being in your system, you could experience shaky hands, increased perspiration, and anxiety
- Cause dehydration – due to its diuretic properties
- Intensify the effects of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Promote fatigue – your body needs rest and by forcing your body to remain alert, it could lead to both physical and emotional fatigue
You can build up a tolerance to caffeine, causing you to need more in order to feel its effects. If you feel like you cannot function without caffeine, then you may be addicted. Its withdrawal symptoms are not life-threatening but can be uncomfortable, prompting you to reach for another cup of coffee.
Caffeine withdrawal symptoms include:
• Slight fatigue
• Muscle pain
• Mild runny nose
• Tension and anxiety
Check with your doctor if you experience any of these caffeine-related problems.
Decreasing the amount of caffeine you consume does not require a lot of effort.
- Switch to naturally caffeine-free drinks such as water, milk or fruit juices or decaffeinated colas, coffees and teas.
- For over-the-counter drugs, check the ingredients for caffeine or the word “xanthine” (caffeine-related compounds). You can also ask your doctor or pharmacist if there is a caffeine-free substitute.
If you think you may be addicted to caffeine, cut back slowly to avoid symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.
- Decrease your consumption over the course of a month, cutting your intake by half each week.
- During this time, exercise more, eat right and get enough sleep to help make things easier on your body.
Next time you reach for the coffee pot, think about how much caffeine you have already consumed. Remember, caffeine is a drug and should be consumed with caution. Moderation is the key.
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Foods Containing Caffeine
In addition to coffee, tea and cola beverages (e.g. Coke, Pepsi, etc.) caffeine sources also include over-the-counter and prescription medications.
Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest and various drink manufacturer web sites
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