Frequently billed as “the most popular drug in the world,” caffeine can be both a best friend and a worst enemy to the average coffee, tea, or soda consumer. We all love the stuff, but it’s hard to get the straight facts on whether it’s helping or hurting our bodies. As it turns out, it’s a touch of both. While caffeine does lend itself to certain healthful properties, it’s important to moderate our intake to limit any negative effects.
We’re optimists here, so we’ll start with the good news. Aside from having a taste for it, most people come to be caffeine consumers to take advantage of its most recognizable symptoms: increased alertness, along with a reduced sense of fatigue. These classic symptoms, widely researched and reported upon by Dr. Andy Smith of Cardiff University, often usher in a pleasurable sense of energy and focus that help a person move forward with a productive day.
When consumed in moderation, caffeine has even been shown to reduce the instance and severity of headaches and migraines. According to Dr. Randolph W. Evans, clinical professor of Neurology at Baylor College of Medicine, the primary reason for this is caffeine’s ability to limit adenosine activity. Adenosine is a naturally occurring brain substance that spikes during headaches or migraine attacks. The consumption of caffeine inhibits the ability of adenosine to connect with its receptors, causing a decrease in the severity of this pain.
Caffeine also kick starts your metabolism, writes Jennifer Warner of WebMD. This process enhances the absorption of products such as pain relievers, explaining caffeine’s presence in many over-the-counter and prescription medications for headaches and other conditions.
Research by Dr. R.D. Prediger adds that consistent caffeine intake reduces your risk for Parkinson’s Disease. Various studies suggest a link between consistent caffeine intake and subsequent neurological protection against the degeneration that occurs with the onset of Parkinson’s. Not only that, but caffeine is also being studied as a possible treatment for patients who have already developed Parkinson’s Disease.
ScienceDaily reports that coffee also contains antioxidants, substances that can prevent or delay certain types of cell damage. While scientists are still investigating the particular ways in which caffeine seeks out and oxidizes damaging “free radicals” in the body, caffeine continues to be linked with the prevention of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and possibly other yet-unknown conditions.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But as we said, caffeine does bring its share of negatives to the table. These are best avoided by not overdoing it: The optimal amount of caffeine per day is roughly 400 milligrams—equivalent to around four cups of brewed coffee. Straying from advised nutritional guidelines could result in any (or all) of the following problems.
As the Mayo Clinic reports, high blood pressure is directly associated with caffeine intake. Caffeine consumption causes a temporary, but pronounced increase in blood pressure. This effect is less dramatic in the case of habitual consumers, but should still be taken into account, especially for men and women who are already prone to any blood pressure-related health issues.
You’ve also likely experienced “the shakes,” or tremors, after a few mugs of coffee on a given day. It’s not uncommon for a person to temporarily lose some control over their fine motor skills after a high level of caffeine intake, writes neurologist Dr. Peter Pressman. While tremors may be inconvenient and distracting, this symptom will most often subside in a couple of hour and can be avoided entirely by decreasing caffeine intake.
According to Psychology Today, one of the most frequently reported negative side effects of caffeine is sleep disruption (or insomnia). Because of the increased alertness experienced by caffeine users, it is not uncommon for people to experience bouts of insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns while under the influence of its effects—one study showed that a cup of coffee consumed six hours before bedtime can reduce overall sleep time by over an hour.
There are numerous health concerns reported alongside the cessation of caffeine consumption, reports The Wall Street Journal. We did say it was a drug, right? As far as demons go, caffeine isn’t a particularly bad one—but it should still be consumed responsibly. If you’re a regular caffeine drinker, your body has become acclimated to a certain level of that molecule in the bloodstream. Quitting cold turkey could disrupt the balance that your body has become accustomed to, resulting in headaches, fatigue, irritability, or nausea and muscle pain. Experts say it’s best to taper off your caffeine intake if you wish to avoid cutoff symptoms.
Last but not least, caffeine has been linked time and time again with an increase in anxiety. Hilly Janes of StressBusting writes that the “boost” caffeine gives us may help with focus, but it also increases our heart rates and breathing rates. This response is linked to the same channels that are activated for our “fight or flight” response. People who are prone to panic disorders or generalized anxiety may react negatively to this, given that our consumption of caffeine is essentially revving up our body’s stress responses.
Fortunately for the coffee lovers of the world, caffeine is not entirely detrimental to our health—and in some cases, it can even aid the naturally occurring process in our bodies. That said, it’s important to keep in mind health guidelines for consumption to avoid any health issues down the road: Try limiting your intake to a maximum of 400 milligrams a day (roughly four cups of brewed coffee) to maximize coffee’s health benefits, while diminishing the impact of any possible risks. To avoid issues with disrupted sleep patterns, taper your coffee intake over the day—and according to Dr. Michael J. Breus of Psychology Today, do your best stick to a 2 p.m. cutoff time.