Caffeine: The Facts

Caffeine: The Facts

by Dr. Michael B. Finkelstein, M.D., F.A.C.P., A.B.H.M.
posted on April 13th 2011

As a former coffee lover, I have always been aware of the caffeine stories, but is it a myth or caffeine fact? It’s not always easy to know. Chances are you have some misconceptions about caffeine. For starters, are you familiar with the most common sources of caffeine? Well, maybe two of the sources aren’t too hard to name − coffee and tea leaves. But did you know kola nuts and cocoa beans are also included among the most common caffeine sources? And do you know how much caffeine content can vary from food to food? It turns out it’s quite a lot actually, depending on the type and serving size of a food or beverage and how it’s prepared. Caffeine content can range from as much as 160 milligrams in some energy drinks to as little as 4 milligrams in a 1−ounce serving of chocolate−flavored syrup. Even decaffeinated coffee isn’t completely free of caffeine. Caffeine is also present in some over−the−counter pain relievers, cold medications, and diet pills. These products can contain as little as 16 milligrams or as much as 200 milligrams of caffeine. In fact, caffeine itself is a mild painkiller and increases the effectiveness of other pain relievers. 

Like most things, it is fair to say that there are some positives and negatives with respect to caffeine; often the issue is how much. Some individuals are much more sensitive to the “side effects,” e.g. sleep disturbances than others. I would also caution anyone reading medical literature, or excerpts from the same, to be careful with the claims either way. I think common sense should prevail when it comes to caffeine. 

To begin, if you know you are sensitive to caffeine, than I think it is reasonable that you reduce, if not eliminate, your consumption of products that contain it. However, many people are not tuned into the side effects. So, here is a hint − if you do not sleep as well as you would like, and you consume caffeine, even if it is early in the day, you should eliminate it from your diet to determine if this is contributing to your problem. In most cases it is. There is a paradoxical effect of caffeine that most people are not aware of − when you drink coffee in the morning for instance, by the time the end of the day approaches, your brain begins to crave it and you go through a minor withdrawal−like phenomenon, the result of which is “stimulation”. Thus, someone who consumes coffee only in the morning may not think it could be affecting them in the evening. However, you could be exhibiting withdrawal symptoms that stimulate your brain’s “desire” for it. So give it up for a while to see if there is a connection. A word of caution − caffeine should be withdrawn on a gradual basis (over a one − two week period) to avoid a “withdrawal headache” which can be quite unpleasant. 

Another thing to think about is “decaffeination”. This process often “washes” the product with a solvent to pull out the caffeine. These solvents are not healthy for us. Try to look for more naturally decaffeinated products. 

Finally, I will end with a word about moderation. Like all good things, the ability to consume things in moderation reflects balance. If you find that you are unable to moderate your caffeine consumption or desire for caffeine, this would be a good time to explore some of the underlying factors for this craving. While sometimes a simple habit is all this represents, more often there are emotional stressors that are worth examining. If these can be effectively addressed, the need to consume stimulating products will decrease.

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