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Caffeine and its effects on health

Caffeine belongs to a group of stimulants called xanthines. Considering it's easily available and a reliable 'pick-me-up' for lots of people, caffeine is a very popular drug. After you take it, its highest concentration in the system occurs within thirty to sixty minutes and its effects usually last from four to six hours.

Caffeine is certainly mildly addictive, as most people already know and perhaps you're aware of this already because you've actually experienced some of the withdrawal symptoms associated with caffeine addiction:

  • Sleepiness
  • Feeling overtired (from no caffeine intake to stimulate you)
  • Significant headaches (when you quickly stop regular caffeine intake)

Caffeine addiction

Caffeine addiction is far more common than generally realised. In the USA, according to the 'Center for Science in the Public Interest' (CSPI), four out of five of our American cousins ingest some form of caffeine on any given day, with the average amount being about 200 milligrams every 24hrs. This is approximately the caffeine equivalent of two 8-ounce cups of coffee, three to four 12-ounce cans of caffeinated fizzy drink, or four large cups of tea. But how much is too much caffeine? It very much depends on the individual, but usually you'll know when you've had more than enough, because it might well make you suffer or feel:

  • anxious
  • excitable
  • restless
  • dizzy
  • irritable
  • unable to concentrate
  • gastrointestinal aches
  • headaches that just don't seem to dissipate
  • Real insomnia or significant trouble getting enough sleep

Those are amongst the most common of caffeine's physiological effects on our bodies when taken in high doses (i.e., more than eight 8-ounce cups of coffee a day), but remember they can certainly occur from lesser amounts too. Many of those physiological effects are the direct result of caffeine speeding up metabolism.

Caffeine, health and disease

As for caffeine's impact on health and disease, these relationships have been less clinically defined in the vast majority of cases, although recent research has looked at how different amounts of caffeine can affect the risk for developing, amongst other conditions:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Birth defects
  • Miscarriages
  • Infertility
  • Cancers
  • High blood pressure (Hypertension)
  • Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Gastro-intestinal ulcers and heartburn
  • Fibrocystic breast disease
  • Cardiac malfunction and heart disease

Although still debated, the distinct possibility definitely exists that excessive caffeine use could certainly increase the odds of suffering osteoporosis in later life. As caffeine is a powerful diuretic, it can also increase calcium loss in the urine. For example, every 150 milligrams of caffeine (found in approximately one 8-ounce cup of coffee or two to three 12-ounce cans of caffeinated carbonated drink), causes in the region of five milligrams of calcium to be excreted out of the body in urine. Such losses are accumulatively significant and could eventually result in decreased bone calcium status, particularly if your diet is already insufficient in adequate calcium in the first place. So if you must have your caffeine, stock up well on calcium by adding at least two tablespoons of milk to each cup of coffee, in addition to getting your recommended daily intake of calcium elsewhere as regularly as possible

Caffeine and cancer

However to be totally fair, results to date have been fairly inconclusive or a tad inconsistent in absolutely linking caffeine with the incidence of various cancers, fibrocystic breast disease, PMS, and birth defects. More intense research is certainly needed, but current evidence does strongly indicate an increased risk for difficult conception, miscarriage, and delivery of low birthweight babies with certain levels of caffeine intake. The USA, with its far greater caffeine problem than the UK, has since 1981, prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to recommend as a sensible precaution, that women totally eliminate or drastically reduce their caffeine intake, if they are actually pregnant or planning to become so. As for the other connections, yes admittedly, it is possible that something else in coffee other than caffeine could be the culprit in causing stomach irritations, escalating ulcerative problems, raising blood pressure and 'bad' cholesterol (LDL), speeding up heart rate, and increasing the actual risk for developing heart disease. However; bear in mind that the jury is still very much out!

Less caffeine the better

Based on all of the above information, your health could well benefit from less caffeine, so reducing it a little in your life is probably a wise wellbeing measure. Switching to a caffeine free alternative is not always easy though, due to the withdrawal symptoms mentioned earlier, but worth 'biting the bullet' for in the long term. If you're a heavy coffee or strong tea drinker and are trying to reduce you daily 'fix', ensure that you drink plenty of water everyday to help minimise those withdrawal symptoms. In addition, don't forget about drinking enough low-fat or skimmed milk and juice, which will provide the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients your body needs.

In conclusion, it should be noted that some individuals take up the alternative of fizzy drinks as part of their 'cold turkey' from caffeine, but please beware here too as they contain significant amounts of phosphorous in the form of phosphoric acid which is a well documented inhibitor of calcium absorption.

This article is courtesy of Alan Gordon

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