Imagine you’re headed home at ten o’clock at night. You have a midterm the next day that you’ve barely started studying for, and you’re a five-minute walk away from a coffee shop. Do you go for the coffee, or choose another route?
I’ve faced this question pretty often as a UCLA student, so I was curious to find out what the experts say. To find out more about the side-effects of caffeine, I spoke to Dr. David Baron, the executive director of the Ashe Center.
Here’s a brief scientific overview of what caffeine does to the body:
Caffeine is classified as an “amine.” From a biochemical perspective, amines mimic neurotransmitters such as epinephrine and dopamine, which are the naturally occurring compounds that boost your mood and energy. It is no coincidence that each of these terms contain the suffix “-ine.” The suffix is used to classify amines, and each of these chemicals produce similar effects.
Caffeine (The good side)
Caffeine, if consumed in moderate amounts, is not bad. It is a useful stimulant to provide an increase in energy, alertness and concentration, Baron said. In small doses it can even relieve headaches. It also gives you a quick energy boost and pumps you up to be able to use all that energy efficiently, so when you do homework, you’ll be more mentally alert. Caffeine may also decrease the risk for diabetes because it interferes with some chemicals that contribute to diabetes.
Unfortunately, caffeine consumption is difficult to moderate because many people unknowingly consume caffeine in small amounts throughout the day. Common caffeine products include chocolate, tea, soda and energy drinks, and even allergy medicine and decongestants have similar effects to caffeine, Baron said. Unfortunately, since people have different tolerance thresholds, it’s hard to know when you’ve had too much caffeine. In general, however, tolerance is increased by drinking coffee or energy drinks on a regular basis. Your “limit” has probably been reached if you have trouble sleeping at night.
Caffeine (The bad side)
Caffeine can become addicting and lead to what Baron terms the “tolerance, dependence and withdrawal effect.” One of the withdrawal effects after discontinuing consistent caffeine intake is a headache (which may even turn into a migraine). Baron added that excessive caffeine consumption may cause the following symptoms:
- Irritability, anxiety, nervousness, agitation and mood changes
- Acid reflux
- Stomach ulcers
- Chest pain
- Bladder irritation
“Caffeine is also a major contributor to sleep disorders because it disrupts the normal flow of sleep,” Baron said. It may cause you to have trouble either falling asleep or staying asleep. Coffee has been shown to disrupt REM sleep, which is needed for cognitive abilities, such as learning and memory. Lastly, caffeine also stresses your heart and blood vessels, and in extreme cases, Baron said, it can contribute to heart attacks and strokes.
Energy drinks are significantly less healthy than coffee. They contain a lot of sugar, and when consumed in large amounts, may contribute to obesity. They also contain other amines, such as taurine, that produce effects similar to those of caffeine. The combination of the sugar, caffeine and other chemicals cause some people to exhibit adverse symptoms at a quicker rate than if they were to simply just drink coffee.
Alternatives to coffee and energy drinks
- Teas, especially green tea and black tea, are great alternatives to energy drinks and coffee. Not only do teas contain less caffeine, they also have great health benefits, such as antioxidants, as well as chemicals that reduce cancer risks. Tea only contains about 20 milligrams of caffeine, while a cup of coffee contains about 100.
- Hot cocoa also contains antioxidants such as gallic acid and flavonoid epicatechin.
- Getting aerobic exercise through activities such as jogging can energize you when you’re feeling a little tired. Even 5 to 10 minutes of vigorous exercise can help you focus.
- Fruits, especially apples and citrus fruits, are excellent sources of natural sugars that give you an energy boost.
- Finally, eating a hearty, complete breakfast is one of the best alternatives to caffeine. Your breakfast should contain proteins and carbohydrates to help fuel you throughout the day.