We may rely on the caffeine steeped into coffee or tea to perk us up on groggy mornings or sleepy afternoons, but is our caffeine consumption a healthy habit?
Dogs may be our best friends, but many of us have another faithful friend: our daily cup (or two) of tea or coffee. We rely on the caffeine steeped into those brews to perk us up on groggy mornings or sleepy afternoons, but is our caffeine consumption a healthy habit?
Caffeine in a nutshell
Caffeine is found in a whole host of plants, including coffee beans, cocoa beans, tea leaves, yerba maté, and guarana.
As a chemical, caffeine is a configuration of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. When these elements come together in just the right way, they have a range of effects on the body. Those effects include a greater flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, as well as an improved ability to concentrate. Caffeine also causes heart rate and blood pressure to climb.
Caffeine itself has no nutritional value. When it’s in our food, it’s absorbed through the stomach and reaches a peak effect in one to two hours. Too much can leave us feeling anxious, though there’s some suggestion that our genes play a role in just how sensitive we are to its effects. Pregnant or breastfeeding women and people who have heart problems or take blood pressure medications are advised to reduce or avoid caffeinated foods and drinks altogether.
Caffeine also has a reputation for being addictive. Those of us forced to go without our usual morning coffee have probably experienced the symptoms of withdrawal: headache, drowsiness, inability to concentrate, and in some cases feelings of depression. A 2006 literature review fell short of labelling this a true addiction; instead, the authors termed the craving for caffeine a “dedicated habit.”
How much is too much?
We’re cautioned against overdoing the caffeine consumption because, in addition to giving us the jitters, high doses of caffeine can cause unpleasant effects such as insomnia, irritability, or an irregular heartbeat.
However, research has yet to find that caffeine is harmful when consumed in moderate quantities: 400 mg per day or less. To put that into perspective, one 8 oz (237 mL) cup of coffee can contain between 75 and 180 mg of caffeine. The same amount of tea contains 15 to 50 mg, and a 1 oz (28 g) chunk of unsweetened chocolate can contain 25 to 58 mg.
Energy drinks, which may contain anywhere from 50 to more than 200 mg of caffeine per can, have become increasingly popular. Because their ingredients and caffeine content varies from product to product, it’s important to read the labels.
You may also be getting caffeine from surprising sources, such as over-the-counter pain relievers. Caffeine has been found to increase the pain-relieving effect and also help the body absorb the medication more quickly.
Is it true that…
… caffeine causes dehydration?
Large amounts of caffeine have a diuretic effect when consumed by people who aren’t used to caffeine. Those who drink coffee and tea regularly develop a tolerance to those diuretic effects and experience very little or no dehydrating effects.
… caffeine causes bone thinning?
High coffee consumption has been associated with a small reduction in bone density in older women, but in a 2013 study, this did not translate into a greater risk of fracture.
… caffeine causes fibrocystic breast disease?
The Mayo Clinic states caffeine has not been found to cause fibrocystic breast disease.
The good news
Harvard researchers point out that, in older studies, caffeine consumption may have been difficult to separate from other unhealthy behaviours, giving it a bad reputation by association. After conducting two large and long-term population studies, the researchers came to the following conclusion in 2008: “We did not find any relationship between coffee consumption and increased risk of death from any cause, death from cancer, or death from cardiovascular disease.”
Caffeine has actually been found to have some health benefits.
It’s estimated that coffee is the main source of antioxidants in the American diet. Canadian coffee consumption may not be quite the same, but Statistics Canada tells us that 80 percent of the caffeine we consume comes from coffee. A 2006 study of postmenopausal women concluded that because of caffeine’s antioxidant properties, coffee may inhibit inflammation linked to heart disease and other inflammatory diseases.
Even if we consume coffee or tea regularly, it’s important to continue to eat a healthy balance of fruits and vegetables, which not only contain antioxidants, but are also rich in vitamins, minerals, and fibre.
Researchers studied 124 people with “mild cognitive impairment” aged 65 to 88. They concluded in 2012 that caffeine seemed to protect against a decline in mental function.
Women who consumed the equivalent of three or more cups of coffee per day were found to have a lower incidence of tinnitus, ringing in the ears, than those who consumed fewer, according to a 2014 study.
A 2011 study conducted on competitive cyclists seemed to confirm that a caffeinated beverage before physical activity can improve performance.
Natural energy boosters
When our energy level starts to flag, many of us turn to a cup of coffee to get revved up again, but that extra jolt can leave us feeling edgy. Instead of drinking another cup, try these natural energy boosters that won’t jangle the nerves.
- Go outside for a brisk walk.
- Turn on the music. Whether it’s Latin salsa or top 10 hits from your youth, listening to upbeat tunes you enjoy will get your energy flowing.
- Snack on some fruit or veggies. Not only will they wake up the taste buds, but they’ll also provide you with healthy fuel to keep you perky.
- Strike a few of your favourite yoga poses.