How to Navigate Caffeine in a Caffeine Crazed Society
By: Emily Winokur, Senior at University of Central Missouri
The first step in the morning routine often begins by turning on the coffee
machine. On the morning commute, it involves making a pit stop to grab an energy drink
or a drive-through to obtain our favorite caffeinated drink. As the midday slump
approaches, the quick search for a caffeine boost is priority. At the end of the evening,
perhaps a late-night craving will result in a chocolate ice cream. This scenario shows
how caffeine is deeply woven into our habits and routines of the day, and ultimately
developed into a staple in more than eighty percent of American diets. Developing a
greater understanding with what caffeine is, where it is found, its effects on the body,
and nutritional implications will help individuals determine to what extent it is beneficial
to the body.
Where is it located?
Caffeine in itself is considered a drug, or stimulant, due to the profound effects it
creates on the brain. It is highly addictive and effective for this very reason. Caffeine is
found naturally in more than sixty plants, the most common including kola nuts (used to
flavor soft drink colas), cocoa beans (chocolate), coffee (yes, even decaffeinated), and
tea leaves. Other sources can be found in energy drinks as well as various supplements
or over-the-counter medicines.
How Does Caffeine Work?
How does caffeine perform its artificial wakefulness charade on the brain? Caffeine enters the bloodstream through the stomach and the small intestine, and can begin having its effects as soon as fifteen minutes after consumption. It starts by stimulating the central nervous system. Caffeine belongs to a group of chemicals called xanthines. It interferes with adenosine (a xanthine naturally found in the brain) at multiple sites in the brain, as it is adenosine’s antagonist. Simply meaning, where adenosine promotes sleepiness, caffeine blocks it and binds to the those receptors instead. Rather than slowing down the brain and the body, it causes everything to speed up.
What Effects Does it Have on the Body?
Caffeine can produce many effects on the body, and targets other areas besides just the brain. A greater caffeine intake can lead to headaches, jitteriness, a fast heart rate, temporary increase in blood pressure, anxiety, trouble falling asleep, restlessness, increased urination, nausea, and vomiting. Large amounts of caffeine have been shown to contribute thinning bones (osteoporosis) due to its effects on calcium absorption. Some individuals may be more or less sensitive to caffeine’s effects, so it is important to listen to the body’s cues and control intake. The FDA recommends no more than 400 milligrams per day for the average adult. Consider limiting caffeine intake if you are prone to stress, anxiety, or sleep issues, have acid reflux, and chronic headaches, as it can worsen these conditions.
How to Use Caffeine Responsibly
Caffeine can be used to relieve drowsiness in the short term, however, it is not meant to act as a substitute for sleep. By restricting the body’s need for sleep and supplementing it with caffeine will lead to a vicious, unwelcome cycle. Even with caffeine in your system, continuous sleep deprivation can disrupt alertness and performance. Do your body a favor and get in the recommended eight hours to fully recharge and start the day right. Not only is sleep important, but also incorporating exercise and a balanced diet are major elements in the equation. Breaking the body down through exercising and rebuilding it with a nutritious diet creates a natural source of energy to fuel the body throughout the day without the presence of a caffeine surplus.
How to Make Healthier Caffeine Choices
Caffeine can be included as part of a healthy diet; however, making moves towards decreasing its less beneficial counterparts such as soda and adding extras to tea and coffee beverages (syrup/sugar/sweetener/whip cream/creamer) will help prevent obesity and diabetes. In the daily caffeine routine, try drinking the beverages at least six hours before bedtime to avoid restlessness. As always, moderation is key.
Starbucks Iced Caffè Mocha (16 oz) vs Starbucks Cold Brew Coffee (16 oz):
Managing Caffeine Withdrawal
Eliminating all caffeinated products suddenly will lead to withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, drowsiness, irritability, and trouble focusing on tasks. To change a caffeine habit, begin by keeping track of how much and where the caffeine intake is coming from. From there, start cutting back gradually. Consider adding more decaffeinated options, shortening the brew time on tea or choosing an herbal tea alternative, and selecting caffeine free over-the-counter pain relievers. Stay vigilant, as the symptoms typically resolve after a few days.
Can’t live without the caffeine? You are not alone. Moderate caffeine use can be an acceptable part of a daily ritual. Being mindful of the amount and type consumed can make a significant difference in the way the body feels (more energy, more focused). Just as an occasional indulgence with dessert will not break your health goals, having a soda or sweet tea will not throw you off course. To reap the benefits of exercise, one must partake in regular physical activity, receive adequate sleep, and fuel the body properly. Without these components in place, the body will not be able to develop to its full potential. The same goes with caffeine consumption; if excessive intake is the norm, the body will never feel truly energized, positive, and alert. By making small adjustments, being conscious of caffeine choices, and finding balance in all aspects will result in a happy and healthy body that will operate optimally in all life’s events. What positive actions will you take to change caffeine’s role in your life?
Research provided by Emily Winokur, Dietetics Student at University of Central Missouri ('19)
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