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Carol Slager, RPh Culinary Fitness Trainer Photo by Tony V. Martin

Caffeine, a stimulant that occurs naturally in some 60 plant species, shows up in soft drinks, energy drinks, tea, cocoa, weight-loss supplements, and a national favorite, coffee. While many simply enjoy caffeinated beverages as a morning ritual and in social situations, there are those who are not fit to be around until they’ve had their daily fix.

And though caffeine is natural and certainly ubiquitous, the U.S. National Academies of Science, the European Food Safety Agency, and Health Canada recommend some limits. For healthy adults, caffeine intake of up to 400 milligrams per day doesn’t raise general health concerns, they say. Then the negative effects — including headaches, insomnia and irritability — can start.

Up to 200 milligram a day is fine for most people, but even 100 milligrams near bedtime may disrupt sleep quality. Caffeine can stay in the bloodstream for about 10 hours, depending on the individual. 

Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning to become pregnant are advised to avoid or limit caffeine to no more than 200 milligrams per day. Clinical evidence is scarce, so it is advisable to err on the side of caution to prevent nausea, birth defects and miscarriage.

And caffeine consumption is not a good idea for children and should be limited in adolescents.

Advantages of caffeine

The obvious reason to enjoy caffeine is to feel more alert. It can also improve concentration and focus.

And though research is inconclusive, possible health benefits include:

  • Improved brain function
  • Weight loss
  • Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, kidney stones and some cancers. 

Potential drawbacks 

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This list is more extensive. You may choose to cut back if you drink more than four cups of coffee or the equivalent a day and experience any of these symptoms: 

  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Frequent urination or inability to control urination
  • Stomach upset
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Muscle tremors
  • Gout 
  • Reduced fertility in women
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Night sweats and hot flashes during menopause

Regular caffeine consumers may not notice these effects. Variation in caffeine sensitivity explains why some people can drink caffeine at night and sleep, and others can't. The speed at which we metabolize caffeine depends on genetics, body mass, age, medication use and health conditions.

Some final thoughts 

• Caffeine may not prevent you from falling asleep, but it may harm sleep quality. Stopping caffeine consumption early in the afternoon can ease these effects.

• Teas have about one-third less caffeine than coffee and offer health and medicinal benefits.

• Coffee is one of the most highly sprayed plants in the world, so consider buying organic.

• Certain medications and herbal supplements, health conditions and alcohol do not mix well with caffeine, so check with your health care provider.

• If you need to cut back on your consumption, do so slowly to avoid withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability and headaches. Your friends and family will appreciate it.

Carol Slager is a licensed pharmacist, author, blogger and health coach in Northwest Indiana. Follow her monthly in Get Healthy and at inkwellcoaching.com.

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