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The Buzz on Caffeine

Health Benefits and Risks of Caffeine Consumption

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian
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Caffeine: Most of us can't get through the day without it. Whether brewing a fresh pot of coffee in the morning, enjoying lunch with a refreshing can of cola, or recharging in the afternoon with an energy drink, we have many routines and food rituals revolving around this energizing substance. Found naturally in the leaves, seeds and fruits of more than 60 plants (including cocoa beans, kola nuts, guarana, yerba mate, green tea extract and tea leaves) and added to many other foods and beverages, caffeine is the world's most popular stimulant. In the US alone, more than 80% of adults consume it. 
 
Like many commonly enjoyed foods and ingredients, we get mixed information about caffeine. Sometimes we hear it does a body good. Other times, we hear it's bad for us. Keep reading to uncover the truth about caffeine: how it works—and how it affects your health.
 
Why Caffeine Keeps You Charged
The brain produces a natural sedative called adenosine, which binds to the appropriate receptor sites in the brain, resulting in a drowsy feeling. Adenosine levels rise during daytime/waking hours, encouraging sleep in the evening. While sleeping, adenosine levels drop, so you awaken refreshed and raring to go.  
 
Caffeine is similar in structure to adenosine. It temporarily binds to adenosine receptor sites in the brain.  This prevents adenosine from attaching itself to the sites and thus, wards off fatigue. If you regularly consume caffeine, you might also discover that you build up a tolerance because the brain makes more receptor sites as a result. Therefore, you need more caffeine to attach to these new sites and get the same results.

While caffeine is one of the most studied ingredients in food supply, there is still great confusion regarding its effects on health. For years caffeine has been included on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's list of substances that are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) list. Extensive research has been conducted on numerous health aspects of caffeine consumption. Here is a synopsis of the findings regarding caffeine and health.
 
5 Health Benefits of Caffeine
  • Dementia Risk: While it is too soon to tell about caffeine's role in the prevention of dementia in humans, there are some preliminary animal studies showing that it might help to protect against dementia. 
     
  • Headache Treatment: The blood vessels in the brain dilate (enlarge) during a headache. Caffeine constricts the blood vessels, which lessens the pain. It is also a mild pain reliever. This is why caffeine is found in headache medications like Excedrin Migraine (130 mg per 2 tablets), Midol Complete (120 mg per 2 tablets) and Anacin (64 mg per 2 tablets).
     
  • Mental Stimulation and Problem Solving: Caffeine has been shown to speed up reaction time and improve processing skills, such as paying attention, solving arithmetic problems, typing and proofreading.
     
  • Parkinson's Disease: Several preliminary studies have shown that higher caffeine intake can reduce one's risk for developing Parkinson's Disease. In fact, caffeine might help improve tremors and motor skills in people who already have the disease. However, the benefits could lessen as a person develops a tolerance to caffeine. 
     
  • Physical Performance: Low to moderate doses of caffeine (200-300 mg) have been shown to improve athletic performance in well-trained athletes, especially in endurance events like running. However, in sports that require short bursts of movement like weight lifting or sprints, caffeine is less effective. Caffeine might help with the burning of fat for energy after exhausting the carbohydrates stored in the muscles. Caffeine also helps reduce the feeling of muscle pain and tiredness, so one feels better while exercising. Continued ›
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • I tried giving up caffeine once. It was the worst dietary change I ever made. I will never do that again, unless some horrible global catastrophy happens, and suddenly humanity runs out of coffee. - 5/3/2014 11:57:20 AM
  • Nicely balanced article. Thanks.
    - 5/3/2014 8:21:56 AM
  • I have Fibrocystic Breast Disease and had to quit caffeine and take Vitamin E as per the doc's request. Big improvement in my health which saved me from surgery.

    The only problem with going caffeine free is when you go out to dinner and ask what they have that is decaffeinated and diet, you will get a plethora of crazy answers from tea to Diet Coke. I started ordering the water with lemon. - 2/17/2014 11:46:51 AM
  • I so agree... My grandmother is a healthy 92 year old, that for as long as I can remember, has always had a cup of coffee each morning with her prayers.
    Her only pain is arthritis.
    :o) - 12/15/2013 9:50:38 AM
  • TAKOFF
    Starting my menopause years, I noticed drinking coffee every morning and at night, then the pepsi and teas in between, was encouraging my menistraul flow to continue. When I stopped all the caffeinated drinks above I did not have one for those months. Caffeine also made me very shaky when taken with something sweet. I only drink one fourth a cup just to taste occasionally now and I am o.k. I guess everything in moderation, as its been said. - 11/21/2013 1:07:54 PM
  • WITTROCKRA
    I was disappointed to see the "health benefit" to help with endurance sports. As a long-distance runner we were told specifically not to take caffeine because it is a short burst of energy and you will crash.

    Also, I feel if you are going to talk about the positives of caffeine, you also need to address products. The chart shows caffeine in soda, coffee, energy drinks and sweets. However, many of those products, especially soda and sweets, not only have caffeine, but high levels of sugar, which is bad. Did you know that drinking one 20 oz. bottle of Mt. Dew is the equivalent of eating 17 teaspoons of sugar. - 11/20/2013 1:34:52 PM
  • Some enlightening perspectives, but I am surpised there was no mention of Cortisol, the fight or flight adrenal. Caffeine stimulates cortisol production. Cortisol among many things, hinders weight loss and interferes with glucose absorbtion. Google it and check it out. - 11/19/2013 4:55:09 PM
  • There was a time when I would have said very quickly that there's no such thing as "too much caffeine." Friends and I joked about how all we drank was filtered water--filtered through ground coffee beans. :-D

    Unfortunately, i've been drinking it for such a long time and at such quantities and variety of strengths that I can drink coffee all day and still be exhausted--I think now that most of the feeling of alertness I have for a short time after drinking coffee is really just the sugar or creamer that I've included.

    I don't have the health effects that some commentors before me have suffered, but I do know that my tolerance for caffeine is much higher than my possible intake. I'm still quite happy to drink coffee (I still love it) but to do so as an alertness aid just doesn't work anymore. And I've never known the buzz some people get off drinking espresso or anything like that. You've got to remember that caffeine is a drug, albeit legal (thank goodness, right?) and will interact with your body in ways you might not expect.

    Meanwhile, I'm enjoying my cup of plain water. - 11/19/2013 2:49:49 PM
  • I have Premature Ventricular Complexes (PVC) - a doctor's way of saying that my heart will skip a beat. It doesn't have any long term affects but is REALLY annoying when it happens because you feel it (whereas generally you don't feel your heart beating). By really limiting my caffeine (one 8 oz Pepsi on Sat and one on Sun and a rare one while out) I have almost eliminated the PVC from happening. In addition, too much caffeine or a big change in caffeine from one day to the next can trigger my migraines, so I just really limit myself. On the other hand, if I have a migraine and it won't go away, sometimes a small amount (4-6 oz of Pepsi) will dull it some. Weird I know, but not uncommon in migrainers. - 11/19/2013 9:05:38 AM
  • I have cut out the caffeine twice...once cold turkey and once gradually. Both worked. These days I avoid most caffeine. I had surgery on my lower esophageal sphincter and caffeine does not work for me anymore. Mostly I go for decaf with an iced tea or chai tea rarely. - 11/19/2013 8:19:54 AM
  • Caffeine, especially coffee can also aggravate GERD or reflux symptoms, which can lead to Vocal Cord Dysfunction. VCD is frightening because the larynx contracts and cuts off your air supply so that you can't exhale as you normally would. It's usually related to damage to the esophagus. Other symptoms include a general scratchiness in the throat, difficulty swallowing, or a compulsion to swallow, and coughing spells not related to a cold or smoking, and an excessive sensitivity to irritants such as smoke and cleaning chemicals. Often, it's misdiagnosed as allergies or asthma, especially if it begins as an adult. Quitting caffeine is one of the things that has greatly reduced my symptoms. - 11/19/2013 7:41:55 AM
  • HILDE123
    I thought the article was useful and was glad see that it was written by a registered dietician. There seemed to be a lot of research behind it. However, I had several episodes a few years ago when I was drinking more caffeine than I am now (I cut way back), when I would get very dizzy, and felt like I was going to faint. One day I did faint and was out for about 10 min. My husband called 911. I was hospitalized for 4 days. They did numerous tests, including an eeg and ekg. They never did find a reason why I passed out. I stopped all caffeine for about 3 years and never had a problem after that. I have gradually added back an occasional coke or 1 cup of regular coffee and have had no more problems. - 11/19/2013 5:56:25 AM