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When is too much coffee, too much?

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The debate on caffeine is never ending, with some studies touting benefits, but others warning of poor health implications. We cannot always completely avoid caffeine, as it occurs naturally in beans and plants that are turned into food and beverages like coffee, tea, energy drinks, soft drinks and chocolate.

If you are neither averse nor allergic to caffeine itself, or to foods that contain significant amounts of caffeine, then the issue is not whether you should eliminate it, but rather, how much caffeine to consume in a day. A recommendation from the Mayo Clinic in the United States suggests that healthy adults can have up to 400mg of caffeine daily, before they begin to see possible signs of overdose. For adolescents, it should not be more than 100mg, and for pregnant women, it should not be more than 200mg. Of course, that amount is dependent on an individual’s overall health, age and weight.

Before drawing a conclusion about caffeine one way or another, consider how it works, what benefits and disadvantages it brings, and whether all that hidden caffeine in food sources is worth the risk of an accidental overdose.

Benefits of caffeine

It helps you stay alert. Caffeine helps to jumpstart alertness, and increases the ability of a sleep-deprived mind to focus and improve productivity. Feelings of fatigue in the morning can be mitigated by caffeine consumption, which is probably why so many of us appear unable to function properly in the morning until we’ve had a cup of coffee. Regular drinkers of caffeine products will also be able to relate to its positive mood-enhancing benefits. This would explain the so-called addictive characteristic of coffee drinks or energy drinks, for example.

Caffeine can boost metabolism through a metabolic process known as thermogenesis, where the body produces heat and energy from burning calories. You will continue to burn calories even while at rest, and for that reason, many weight loss pills contain caffeine as an active ingredient. It doubles up as a weight loss aid for its appetite-suppressing qualities. However, if you want this to work as it should, choose your source of caffeine wisely. Sugary and creamy caffeine drinks will only neutralise the intended effect, hence it is best to stick to plain black coffee or green tea.

Another great use for caffeine is its pain-relieving qualities, primarily when it comes to soothing headaches. It is an active ingredient in most over-the-counter painkillers, helping to lower inflammation. So, the next time your head begins to hurt, try a cup of coffee for a change. Surprisingly, research findings show indications that caffeine might help to slow the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Research notes that people with the lowest risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia were those who drank at least three cups of coffee every day. This was found to be true in Finland, the country with the highest consumption of coffee per capita (an average of 12kg annually!).

Disadvantages of caffeine

You feel more alert soon after a cup of coffee because caffeine is a stimulant with a short half-life – in healthy adults, it is absorbed into the body within 45 minutes and processed out entirely in five to six hours. That’s why it’s quite common to hear someone choosing to forgo a cup of after dinner coffee in favour of having a good night’s sleep, to avoid experiencing insomnia.

Caffeine affects everyone differently, e.g. we all know that one friend who drinks coffee late at night and is still able to sleep soundly after, so if you want to find out whether caffeine affects your ability to sleep, conduct some tests on the weekend to be sure. Caffeine can affect cardiovascular health based on a few factors: the amount consumed, your liver’s ability to process and detoxify, and even your genetics. Without knowing it, you may be predisposed to a higher risk of heart attack, high blood pressure and anxiety from overconsumption of caffeine.

Coffee also contains a compound known as cafestol, which raises cholesterol levels. It is found in unfiltered coffee made with a French press or percolator. The good news is that cafestol can be easily removed using paper filters, the same kind used in drip coffee makers. When using a French press, using a paper filter will solve your cafestol problem, and make your press much easier to clean as well. While we have established that caffeine relieves headaches, it can also be the cause of one. How can a substance be both a cause and a relief?

Caffeine narrows blood vessels near to our brain, regulating blood flow and helping to relieve headaches. When we stop taking our regular amount of daily caffeine, withdrawals occur, and the regulating effect on the blood vessels are undone. Hidden daily sources of caffeine may well be the cause of your jitters. These varied findings on caffeine imply that you should evaluate your personal medical history to decide if caffeine is right for you, as they come from sources other than coffee and tea. Your intake can add up in a day quite easily if you aren’t paying attention to the amounts consumed.

Colas and other soft drinks have significant amounts of caffeine per serving. If you intend to cut down on caffeine, do check the labels before buying. Chocolate usually has about 10mgs, but dark chocolate can contain closer to 30mgs, about the same amount as a can of cola. Similarly, if your ice cream contains coffee or chocolate, you are looking at another significant source of caffeine. Products like painkillers and weight loss pills are high in caffeine, but you might not be expecting it to appear in your breath mints or even energy bars. Fortified water is known for replacing electrolytes and various vitamins, but some brands contain up to 50mg of caffeine.

And the most surprising one of all might be decaffeinated coffee. A 2007 test by Consumer Reports, an independent American non-profit organisation that conducts product research, tested decaffeinated coffee from common brands, including Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Out of the 36 samples tested, some contained as much as 20mgs of caffeine.

Recognising symptoms of caffeine overdose

Milder symptoms include: dizziness, diarrhoea, insomnia, headache, irritability and fever. Those symptoms may not indicate an overdose to you right away, and may even resolve on their own. Other symptoms of possible caffeine overdose require medical attention. They include trouble breathing, vomiting, hallucinations, chest pain, irregular heartbeat and convulsions.

Women who are nursing should be reminded that the caffeine they consume can manifest in breast milk, and hence, should take only 200mgs or less daily. Babies who experience overdose may show symptoms that include nausea, tense muscles and rapid breathing.

Taking caffeine responsibly

Many sources of caffeine tend to be on the unhealthy side, like high sugar soft drinks and candy, and drinks with synthetic ingredients. Caffeine does not have to be written off entirely from your diet, especially considering the benefits that come with certain caffeinated products. With a little effort, you can limit your consumption of caffeine to healthier sources, like brewed coffee with a little milk and no sugar, or tea, which has been drunk for centuries not only for the taste, but also for its antioxidant properties.

If you are in the mood to indulge in desserts, practise portion control. Other foods like mints, energy bars and painkillers can be taken only when needed, or in many cases, not at all. So, to the fans of caffeine, fret not. By choosing your sources wisely, you can still keep a few caffeine fixes in your life and continue to enjoy your favourite cup of coffee and/or tea beverages with friends and colleagues.

By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper,  JULY 2, 2018