Caffeine: Friend or Foe?

April 09, 2019

Caffeine: Friend or Foe?

Joe, java, brew, cuppa, go juice, your morning jolt. Whatever you call it, Canadians love their coffee.

In recent studies, Canada has ranged among the top caffeine consumers in the world – as high as 10th (, 2018). And America usually makes the top 25. Maybe it’s the cold winters in Canada and in the northern states. It might have something to do with the fact that, in 2016, there was about one Tim Horton’s for every 9000 Canadians. And its growing market share further south makes plenty of Americans happy every morning too.

Whatever the cause, we like our coffee and we like it caffeinated.

But there has been a lot of talk about caffeine in the health and diet industries, both applauding and denouncing our favorite pick-me-up.

So what’s the scoop? Is caffeine good for us, or bad? Well…. both.

How does caffeine effect your body?

Caffeine is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant. In other words, it affects your brain more than the rest of you. It helps you feel alert by blocking the effect of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that helps you relax and feel sleepy.

At the same time, it is also thought to increase the adrenaline in your blood, and the activity of dopamine (the happy hormone) and norepinephrine in your brain.

All of this is a complicated way of saying it makes you feel more energetic.

But the effects vary from person to person, depending on age, overall health, and body mass. And like most things, you can get too much of a good thing. Your body can build up a tolerance to caffeine, and you may feel the need to drink more than you used to. And that’s where you need to be careful.

On the down side

Caffeine is addictive. Not only can you develop a dependence on caffeine, but you can suffer withdrawal symptoms if you quit suddenly. Maybe you feel a headache, a little drowsiness, or irritability when you haven’t had your morning joe. Those are withdrawal symptoms. At that level, they may be nothing more than a nuisance fixed by that first steaming cup. But it also might be a warning that you’re consuming too much.

And too much can mean more than just feeling jittery. It is possible to overdose from caffeine, and this is something that is growing more common as energy drinks and caffeine-boosted snack foods flood the market. Caffeine overdose can include hallucinations, convulsions, and tremors, and require hospitalization.

Other negative effects can include:

  • increased heart rate
  • a temporary increase in blood pressure
  • fertility issues
  • heartburn from increased stomach acid
  • diarrhea
  • an increased need to urinate, and worsened bladder issues (if you already have them)
  • increased risk of osteoporosis, as caffeine prevents calcium from being absorbed in the bones

If you have existing health issues such as heart disease, bladder issues, or osteoporosis, or if you’re pregnant, it would be wise to talk to your healthcare provider about caffeine before you indulge.

That said, the news isn’t all bad. Researchers have also found many positive side effects of caffeine beyond keeping you awake during that afternoon slump at work.

On the plus side

Caffeine doesn’t just make you bearable in the morning. It helps maintain regular bowel movements, boosts memory, improves mental functioning, and is a mood enhancer. But you probably already knew that from your own daily use.

You might not know that caffeine has also been tied to:

  • Decreased risk of skin, oral and throat cancers
  • For those with colon cancer, a decreased risk of recurring tumors and death
  • Decreased risk of stroke and coronary artery disease
  • Enhanced workout results and manual dexterity
  • Better memory and executive functioning in older adults

And what all this means is….

Like so many areas of life and our health, balance is the key.

So long as you don’t have health restrictions, you may be able to enjoy that morning joe and reap its benefits. The important thing is to be aware of your own body and how it reacts to caffeine, and to be mindful of the potential for negative side effects. Not only does caffeine effect different people differently, but your own reaction to caffeine may change with your age and health.  

One to two (normal sized) cups of coffee per day seems to be the healthiest average for adults. But beware of extra-large sized restaurant cups and those popular energy “shots.” Those tiny energy drink “shots” actually contain about five times the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee.

So fill up your cup a time or two (but not more), and enjoy your morning!

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