What is Caffeine? Is Caffeine Good For You?
If you are a java head, you are addicted to trimethylxanthine, an adrenal stimulant found in plants humans love to make drinks from; coffee, tea, cacao, guarana, and even the Yaupon holly. Refined into a bitter white powder, caffeine pills were formerly included in soldiers’ kits so that they could stay awake on watch. Its main action is by stimulating your adrenals, small glands on top of your kidneys, to produce more adrenaline.
Is it good for you or bad? There is plenty of evidence on both sides.
Benefits of Caffeine
Alertness/ Brain Function:
Most coffee-drinkers aren’t awake until they have their first cup. Caffeine is the go-to stimulant for millions of morning wakeups, but it’s also how many late-night drivers get home, as a glance at any truck stop 5-Hour rack will show.
Like any stimulant, caffeine makes you feel awake, alert, and full of energy because it stimulates adrenaline production. Caffeine also blocks adenosine, giving your neurons a boost so that they can make necessary connections, thus the perception that energy drinks help you study.
Many weight loss programs are caffeine-based, based on the theory that caffeine stimulates the metabolism. There is good science behind this. Not only does caffeine make you exercise longer; it also causes the release of fatty acids, so you burn more fat for the exercise you are doing. Also, caffeine is a diuretic, so you lose water weight in the short term.
Better Sports Performance:
Many endurance athletes like runners and cyclists swear by caffeinated jelly beans and sports gels. The gels, chews, and beans provide simple sugars, electrolytes, and the equivalent of a cup or two of coffee to keep athletes going longer and stronger. It’s a good idea to alternate caffeinated with non-caffeinated to go easy on the stomach though.
Protection Against Several Major Health Threats:
Multiple medical studies show that caffeine from natural sources, like coffee and tea, can protect against stroke, Alzheimer’s, Type 2 diabetes, and some forms of heart arrhythmia. This does not mean that existing sufferers will necessarily be helped.
While the 1989-90 Nurses’ Study says that four cups of coffee daily were shown to protect against the onset of Type 2 Diabetes, diagnosed diabetics are advised to limit coffee because it can increase insulin resistance, and people with Alzheimer’s are advised to avoid caffeine.
However, antioxidants and other substances in coffee, tea, and chocolate have been shown to have many health benefits.
Risks of Caffeine
Caffeine is no substitute for adequate sleep, but many people forget that. The main action of caffeine is through adrenaline stimulation, and the body simply is not designed to stay in a state of permanent adrenal stress.
Adrenal Stress, Anxiety, and Elevated Cortisol:
Adrenaline is meant to give us that extra boost we need in emergencies. Our ancient ancestors relied on adrenaline to stay alive in a dangerous world. Today, we use it to work late and stay awake on the highway. Many people live in a state of permanent adrenal stress, which forces the body to raise cortisol levels.
Cortisol stress probably helped ancient man to stay permanently alert and aware, conserve fat supplies, and lower birth rates during times of great danger. Today, our bodies may interpret our unhealthy lifestyles as a reason to elevate cortisol, causing hypertension, weight gain, depression and fertility problems. Drinking a cup of coffee doesn’t cause that, but overdoing caffeine can contribute to that.
Does caffeine worsen depression? There is science on both sides. Some studies show that coffee can reduce suicidal ideation in women and that acids found in coffee can reduce nerve inflammation in the brain. Other studies show that caffeine increases anxiety in depressed subjects.
While normal coffee consumption won’t significantly affect blood sugar in healthy adults, it can cause insulin resistance in people with Type 2 diabetes. This can raise blood sugar by around 8%.
Caffeine Withdrawal Headaches:
Because caffeine constricts the blood vessels when blood flow increases, it causes miserable headaches. This creates the long-lasting and painful headache that happens to regular coffee drinkers when they don’t get their morning dose. Interestingly, cardiologists say that caffeine seems to increase blood flow in smaller blood vessels and improve function in arterial epithelial cells, so it’s complicated.
So How Much Caffeine Should I Drink?
The Mayo Clinic says most people can take 400 mg. of caffeine a day: 4 cups of coffee, 10 sodas, or 2 average energy drinks.
Average Caffeine Content In Common Caffeine Sources:
Adolescents shouldn’t have more than 150 mg. and should limit energy drinks, which contain various unknown ingredients. Be aware that some energy drinks have more than the daily recommendation in just one drink. Added sweeteners are another topic, but should be limited.
Are you more sensitive than average to caffeine? If you get the jitters from the average dose, you should back off, but slowly. Switch to half-caf or decaf coffee, and substitute teas. Also, drugs like epinephrine can increase the effects of caffeine.
Most people ingest caffeine every day. The effects of caffeine on the body are wide-ranging and complex and range from the protective to the nasty. Listen to your body, be aware of how caffeine affects you personally, and consult with your physician about how caffeine may affect any conditions you have. Beware of energy drinks, limit sweeteners, but if you like coffee, drink up.
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