Everything You Didn’t Know You Needed To Know About Caffeine

As finals week continues to ravage the campus and students begin heading home for the holidays, I felt we should learn a little about a common “favorite” among the late night finals crammers and long-distance drivers: Caffeine. Yes, folks…today’s informative post is brought to you by the letters C, H, N, and O specifically when they are lined up like this: C8H10N4O2 (for those of you who are confused, this is caffeine’s chemical formula).

Caffeine, or trimethylxanthine, can be found naturally in your coffee, chocolate, and tea but is also added to your caffeinated sodas, energy drinks, novelty candies & gifts (gums, mints, soap, lip balm, etc.), diet pills, and even some over the counter pain relief medicine. Coffee leads the way in general caffeine consumption, with 250,000 tons of it consumed globally per annum. Around 90% of Americans consume caffeine in some form each day, with more than half of the population consuming more than 300mg’s of the stuff daily (about two cups of coffee); 20-30% are reported to consume more than 600mg. Surprisingly, we are not the leaders in consumption of caffeine. The caffeine crown goes to the Scandinavians with countries, like Finland, consuming more caffeine than any other country worldwide.

Caffeine has a variety of benefits, the most desirable of which is its ability to boost your energy. It turns out about 65% of college students use energy drinks (filled with caffeine) to boost energy levels. For your benefit, there have been over 19,000 studies on caffeine, and more than one has come to the conclusion that, yes, caffeine will boost your energy. But why? Caffeine has the fancy ability to look like adenosine to your brains cells adenosine receptors; the caffeine will bind to the adenosine receptors and, unlike adenosine, will cause the cells to speed up. This increased cellular activity is “noticed” by the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland, upon noticing the activity,  interprets it as an emergency situation and releases adrenaline into your system. The adrenaline is your “fight or flight” instinct, so your reactions are heightened (among other effects). Additionally, caffeine has some dubious “cousins” in the drug world: Cocaine, Heroin, and some amphetamines and one of the traits they share is the ability to manipulate dopamine levels (usually an increase). Caffeine’s effect is much weaker than heroin, but it is suggested that this could be why caffeine has addictive properties.

Caffeine consumption has a wide variety of pros and cons, many of which are probably experienced by our Avila population regularly. The list of cons is long and not a little worrisome, but there are many pros that keep us coming back to our precious drug.

Cons: Increased heart-rate, increased blood pressure, food cravings, increased anxiety and stress levels, sleep deprivation, jitters, restlessness, heart palpitations, jolt/crash (depression & fatigue), and addiction/withdrawal.

Pros: renewed energy, heightened alertness, boosted mood, can stop headaches, treat asthma, can protect against cavities, and has some major medical benefits (regular users are 80& less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease; two cup a day users could see a 20% reduced risk of colon cancer,  an 80% drop in the odds of developing cirrhosis, and a 50% decrease in the risk of developing gallstones; It is also being tested as a possible protection from Alzheimer’s and against the destruction of pancreatic skin cells).

The two biggest issues with coffee are the sleep deprivation and addiction. Not surprisingly, one can (and frequently does) lead to the other because of what I’m calling the Caffeine Cycle. Which is when you loose “deep sleep” because you fell asleep with caffeine still in your system, use caffeine products to keep you energized throughout the day, and then do it all over again until you’re completely dependent.  It’s a vicious cycle that leads to reliance on caffeine to remain functioning normally. When you stop, the withdrawals could be pretty awful too. Like most drugs of the stimulant variety, caffeine’s withdrawal symptoms can include depression, fatigue, and splitting headaches. You could also experience slowed reaction times and “quick” thinking activities. Caffeine withdrawal is wicked enough that the international medical community considers caffeine withdrawal a medical syndrome.

Obviously, caffeine has its ups and downs. You get some pretty great benefits, but they can cost you in the long run. Still want to know more? Well, here are some random factoids my research turned up:

  • Natural caffeine is used by plants as a pesticide—killing off most insects that like to nibble on that particular plant.

  • African folklore sets the discovery of coffee’s energizing properties around 800 AD. European and Asian accounts indicate that coffee and tea were local staples as early as the 1400’s but it is likely that food and drinks made from caffeine containing plants were a part of humankind’s medical and nutritional arsenal since before recorded time.

  • Products marketed as “soda” or “pop” should have around 70mg or less per FDA regulations. Energy drinks get around that rule by not marketing as a “soda”. Your precious RedBull has about 80mg/8.3 oz. and 5 Hour Energy topples the scales at 207mg/2oz. serving.

  • Chocolate is not always as caffeinated as we think. Its caffeine content relies on the blend of cocoa butter, cocoa solids, sugar, flavorings, and filler. The average 50g bar of chocolate could have as few as 3mg or as many as 63mg. A good example is the plain Hershey’s Kiss—nine Kisses = 9mg of caffeine.

So, dear readers, go and enjoy your “cuppa” as per your usual, but perhaps look for some energy alternatives when you are planning a late night cramming session. If you’re looking for some options to avoid the all-nighters this semester, check out this blog post. Once again, Avila students and college students around the world—I wish you all good luck on your final exams!

If you are interested in what sources I used to write this or want to learn some more click here

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