The power of caffeine: Hit or myth?

Tracy Parker

Does this line-up resemble your daily schedule?

6 am Wake up to a fresh pot of tea

7 am Grab a coffee-to-go for the commute

9 am Morning meeting (complimentary coffee)

Noon Eat lunch, including a can of cola

4 pm Trip to the vending machine for late-afternoon chocolate fix

8.30 pm Sip an after-dinner cappuccino

In today’s caffeine-powered cultured, a routine like the one above isn’t all that unusual. Indeed, caffeine is consumed by 80 to 90 percent of us on a daily basis, making it one of the most commonly used drugs in our society. But while caffeine is one of the most widely studied ingredients in the food supply and it’s been safely used for centuries, it is still surrounded by misconceptions.

The subject of much investigation, US researchers recently found that a lotion containing caffeine reduced the incidence of skin cancer in laboratory mice. However, in the same week, German researchers reported finding traces of the potentially cancer-causing chemical, acrylamide, in coffee. So, what's the bottom line? Is caffeine a miracle or a menace to your health?

The truth is, no real health risks associated with moderate caffeine intake have been uncovered, but many people clearly consume too much - perhaps without realising it. To help clear up the caffeine confusion, here’s the lowdown on how it affects your health, how much is too much and how you can reduce your intake if you’re overdoing it.

What it is and where to find it

Caffeine, or 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, is a naturally occurring substance that’s found in the leaves, seeds and fruits of at least 63 plant species worldwide. The most common sources are coffee and cocoa beans, tea leaves and kola nuts, but it is also added to various foodstuffs and medication. The amount of caffeine in food and beverages depends on the serving size, the preparation method and, when it comes to coffee and tea, the plant variety.

· Brewed coffee has 40 to 180 milligrams per cup; instant coffee has 30 to 120 milligrams per cup
· Brewed tea has 20 to 90 milligrams per cup (an average of 70 milligrams)
· Cocoa has 4 milligrams per cup
· Milk chocolate has 3 to 6 milligrams per ounce; dark chocolate has 25 milligrams per ounce
· Cola has 50 milligrams per can while Red Bull packs 80 milligrams into a can

Caffeine and your health

Here are some commonly asked questions about the role of caffeine in your health:

Is caffeine addictive?
No, caffeine is not addictive. However, it can be habit forming and there are drawbacks to an excessive intake of caffeine. Too much caffeine can cause restlessness, insomnia, heart irregularities and delirium, but these symptoms are individual and depend on many factors, like the amount ingested, the frequency of consumption, individual sensitivity and metabolism.

Caffeine also relaxes the pyloric sphincter (the valve at the top of the stomach), which can exacerbate problems of acid reflux. It acts as a diuretic (making you urinate more) so it has a potential dehydrating effect, too.

Caffeine withdrawal also produces symptoms. Many people report suffering from headaches, fatigue or drowsiness if they miss their morning cup of coffee or attempt to stop drinking caffeine. The headaches can be strong and they can last from a few days to weeks. Weaning yourself gradually is important to minimise these symptoms.

Can caffeine keep you alert?
Caffeine is a mild stimulant to the central nervous system. It increases heart rate, giving you a burst of energy, which can help you stay more alert in certain situations, such as working the night shift and studying late (it won’t improve your performance on an exam from lack of sleep). But, the effects are short-term and can lead to drinking more coffee.

A note of caution: Contrary to popular belief, caffeine will not sober you up after a night of drinking. A strong cup of coffee will just make you a wide-awake drunk.

Does caffeine protect against cancer and heart disease?
You may have heard that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of developing colon cancer, but the reference study is far from conclusive. There has also been an association between unfiltered coffee and raised cholesterol in Scandinavia, yet no link has been found with drinking filtered coffee elsewhere. There's little evidence that caffeine promotes or protects against cancer or heart disease, apart from the very recent research in mice suggesting that caffeine in tea and coffee may protect against skin cancer.

While moderate caffeine intake doesn't appear to be harmful, experts still say the best way to protect against cancer and heart disease is following a healthy diet that’s high in fruits and vegetables and provides health-protecting nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, and getting plenty of regular exercise.

Can caffeine help control asthma?
Caffeine is a weak bronchodilator and chemically related to the drug theophylline, which is used to treat asthma. It has been shown that a few cups of coffee can help quell an attack in asthma and allergy attack sufferers, when no medications are available. If you suffer from asthma or allergies, follow your doctor’s advice for treatment.

Will caffeine promote faster weight loss?
Caffeine consumption has been shown to produce a temporary increase in the metabolic rate, but the increase is insignificant when it comes to long-term weight loss. Caffeine is also a diuretic, so it increases water loss from the body via urine. Any water loss will result in a decreased body weight, but the lost weight is not body fat. As a result of these properties, many herbal supplements contain high levels of caffeine and purport to enhance weight loss. However, they are not safety-approved and many have been associated with illness and death.

Don’t be misled into believing that an extra cup of coffee or an herbal pill instead of breakfast is going to help burn a few calories and aid weight loss. When it comes to losing weight and keeping it off, there is still no substitute for a healthy diet and exercise.

Do caffeine-containing beverages improve athletic performance?
A few recent studies have shown that taking caffeine, in the form of tablets rather then beverages, just before exercise can increase endurance, but results have been inconsistent and researchers aren't sure how it actually works.

You should also keep in mind that caffeine causes your body to lose water more quickly and it can hinder rehydration when consumed before or after exercise. It is also on the list of controlled drugs set by the International Olympic Committee, so it’s essentially considered an illegal drug in the athletic world. This means the magic bullet for improved performance is not in your can of Red Bull. A sound diet and good training program are once again the answer.

Can too much caffeine result in weak bones?
Although caffeine can increase the amount of calcium lost from the bone, research shows that moderate consumption does not cause osteoporosis. If you’re having more than a moderate amount of caffeine, offset the amount of calcium you lose from your bones by increasing the amount in your diet (for example, two tablespoons of milk or yoghurt per cup of coffee will help replace the lost calcium).

What is a safe consumption of caffeine?
Most experts agree that 300 milligrams of caffeine (the amount in three cups of coffee), for healthy individuals, is a moderate intake. It’s recommended that pregnant women stick to 200 milligrams per day.

The trouble is, it’s so easy to consume more than 300 milligrams - a couple mugs of coffee and a can of coke is all it takes. So, if your day starts and finishes as in our scenario above, which presents a potential caffeine intake of greater than 1,000 milligrams, you may want to consider deceasing your intake of caffeine.

Tips for reducing caffeine consumption
1. Cut back gradually and eliminate a cup or glassful of caffeine per day rather than going cold turkey.
2. Instead of grabbing another coffee or chocolate bar, increase your energy levels by:
· Taking a brisk 10-minute walk. This raises energy faster and for longer periods than sweets, snacks or coffee. It will also provide an outlet for job-related tensions or mental fatigue and make the afternoon more productive.
· Having regular meals rather than skipping or delaying them.
· Getting a good night’s sleep. Caffeine can delay the onset of sleep, so avoid it before bedtime.
3. Swap caffeinated drinks for water, herbal tea, caffeine-free versions or fruit juice.
4. Cut down the brewing time. A cup of regular instant coffee generally contains less caffeine than a cup of regular brewed coffee. Brewing a tea bag for one minute, versus three minutes, can cut the amount of caffeine in half.
5. Read medication labels carefully. One dose of an over-the-counter pain relief capsule can contain the same amount of caffeine as one to two cups of coffee.

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