Being a grad student, I thought I knew a lot about caffeine. Most of my cohort managed to kick or reduce their caffeine habit over semester breaks, and then about a month into the new semester most of us were hooked again. Last Autumn we had a psychopharmacology class, and in the section on psychostimulants there were several pages on caffeine. When the professor lectured about it, it turned out our combined experience of caffeine produced more information than even he knew. Yet in getting ready to write this blog, I learned a few new things about the availability of caffeine.
Caffeine is quite possibly the most widely used drug in the world. It is found in a variety of natural substances, such as cocao beans, coffee beans, tea leaves, and a whole range of herbs. Our text book (Mind, Brain, and Drug, by Dawson Hedges and Colin Burchfield) lists its possible medical uses as a reliever of migraine headaches, and for enhancing seizure duration and length during electroconvulsive therapy. It lists the possible adverse medical effects of vasoconstriction, increased heart rate and blood pressure, reduced cerebral blood flow, and reduced birth weight. It creates physcial dependence (as anyone who has tried to kick caffeine will readily tell you), and when abruptly withdrawn will produce irritability, drowsiness, lowered mood, anxiety, nausea, and really bad headaches. Apparently the data on reduced birth weight when a pregnant woman consumes caffeine is under debate. However, it can cross the placental barrier, which means when Moma has that cup of coffee, so does the baby. A fetus does not have the enzymes to quickly metabolize caffeine, so the effect on them is much greater, and lasts longer. Some research suggests it may affect brain development in the fetus. Caffeine also crosses over through breast milk, with the most obvious result being a cholicy baby.
So why do people consume caffeine? It’s a stimulant. It is that which keeps sleepy drivers driving, and sleepy students studying and attending classes. It is what keeps people awake at their boring jobs, or after a night of not enough sleep. It can actually enhance performance and alertness, and during strenuous exercise it can improve endurance. For adults over 65, it prevents the decline in memory performance that usually occurs in the late afternoons. (Hmm . . . think that works for those of us under 65 as well.) Most over-the-counter sinus headache medicines contain caffeine, because it shrinks sinus swelling and allows them to drain. I’ve also known people who use caffeine as a laxative.
Caffeine does have some drawbacks my textbook didn’t list. For instance, it can relax the muscle at the top of the stomach, and allow digestive juices to rise into the esophagus (heartburn). It can irritate the bladder, and cause incontinence. It may irritate the lining of the intestines. For women who have headaches or other symptoms just before their period, caffeine can make those symptoms worse. While the textbook suggested it may help to relieve migraines, for other people it may bring them on. It can increase anxiety. Caffeine will also block the absorption of calcium, so giving kids chocolate milk doesn’t do much for their bones and teeth. And for some people, caffeine too late in the day can make it difficult to sleep. This list is not exhaustive, and if you talk about caffeine in a group of people, you are apt to hear of other side effects.
How do people get their caffeine fix? Chocolate, coffee, tea, and soft drinks immediately come to mind. I went to www.energyfiend.com/the-caffeine-database/ and found information on a range of products, listing milligrams of caffeine per ounce of substance. Coke Classic has 2.83 mg per oz, and Mountain Dew has 4.58. Then there are energy drinks like Red Bull, with 9.67 mg per oz. I noticed listings of 1 ounce drinks you can buy that provide 100 mg per oz. Average brewed coffee produces 13.44 mg per oz, and even decaf has .70 mg per oz. However, a Starbucks coffee has 23.25 mg per oz, and that’s before you add the shots of espresso. (One of my friends works at Starbucks, and says she sometimes feels like a pusher.) Black tea has 5.88 mg per oz, and even Lipton decaf tea has .5 mg per oz. Green tea (my caffeine of choice) still has 3.13 mg per oz (but I rationalize I’m getting those antioxidants). Then there is chocolate (Yum!). Hot cocoa varies, but is in the .63 mg per oz range. Unsweetened baking chocolate has 23.2 mg per square, Hershey’s Kisses have 1 mg per kiss, a Hershey’s chocolate bar has 9 mg per bar, and their Special Dark Chocolate bar has 31 mg per bar.
I’ve discovered people can also get their caffeine fix from lip gloss (Bare Essentials Buzz Latte Lip Balm at $8, and Spazzstick Caffeinated Lip Balm at $2.99). Or for those who need maximum caffeine to wake up, trying bathing with Shower Shock Caffeinated Soap ($6.99); they say for the maximum buzz, lather and leave the soap on your skin for a few minutes before rinsing.
I went on an 11-day medical fast once, and that included giving up caffeine. (I still remember the killer headache . . . it lasted for days.) A friend did it with me, and we used to sit around talking about what we would eat when we were done. The first thing I wanted to do was get re-addicted to caffeine. I’m not sure if it was the taste (chocolate, and jasmine green tea), or the buzz, but I’ve never really been able to let it go. Even though I know I’d probably be healthier without it. Ah well . . . . 🙂