When the snooze button can be hit no more, many people turn to coffee, energy drinks and other sources of liquid energy to get through the day. While an occasional cup of coffee or energy drink doesn’t typically have life-altering consequences, relying on caffeine to function can lead to negative side-effects.
“Caffeine is addictive,” said Julie Gibbs, director of Lafene Health Center’s health promotions. “Eventually, your body can get used to it, and it takes more to get you to the same spot. It’s like alcohol in that way.”
According to howstuffworks.com, caffeine is a chemical stimulant called trimethylxanthine. Caffeine uses the same mechanisms as cocaine, heroin and amphetamines to stimulate brain function and make people feel more alert. It blocks the effects of adenosine, a brain chemical involved in sleep. Caffeine is a highly popular substance around 90 percent of Americans consume caffeine every day. The stimulant is found both naturally and artificially in many beverages and foods
According to Consumer Report, the average 8 ounce cup of coffee has about 100 milligrams of caffeine. The report states that 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is safe for the average, healthy adult. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers 300 milligrams of caffeine a moderate daily dose. According to howstuffworks.com, 20 to 30 percent of adults consume more than 600 milligrams of caffeine a day.
“Some people experience higher blood pressure when they drink a lot of coffee,” Gibbs said. “That, and the possibility of getting addicted, are just two of the possible outcomes.”
While drinking a cup of coffee to finish cramming for a test may seem like a good idea while staring at the text book, the consequences of drinking caffeinated beverages last much longer than a study session. Four to five hours after consuming caffeine, half of the consumed drug is still in your body. That means that if you drink some coffee when you get sleepy at 11 p.m. to stay awake, a majority of the stimulant is still in your body when you try to hit the pillow—unless you pull an all-night study session.
“It depends on the person, but many people will have trouble sleeping,” Gibbs said. “I know people who can’t drink coffee after 3 in the afternoon or so, because if they do they can’t sleep at night when they want to.”
While a single cup of coffee contains about 100 milligrams of caffeine, many energy drinks pack a larger punch. According to WebMD, popular energy drink caffeine content ranges from 71 milligrams (Amp energy) to 242 milligrams (5-Hour Energy Extra Strength).
Most energy drinks provide energy through caffeine and sugar. Other common energy drink ingredients include the stimulant ephedrine, the natural amino acid taurine and the organic acid creatine.
“A lot of people definitely consume more caffeine through energy drinks because they taste good,” Gibbs said. “Energy drinks have a lot of sugar in them, so it masks the caffeine. Energy drinks also typically have a higher caffeine content. People don’t pay attention to what is in their drinks.”
According to howstuffworks.com, energy drinks are a combination of soda and nutritional supplement. This means they contain both animo acids and vitamins similar to nutritional supplements and sugar and caffeine like soda.
“The vitamins and nutritional aspects of energy drinks don’t really matter,” Gibbs said. “They come along with everything that isn’t good, too. It’s actually, probably, a ploy by the industry to get people to drink their product. People hear these drinks have all these goods things in them, so they drink them even though they are mostly sugar and caffeine.”
Caffeine consumption can have fatal consequences when taken to an extreme. According to a study done by the New Mexico Department of Health, a lethal dose of caffeine is over 5 g. This is roughly the equivalent to 42 cups of coffee in one sitting, depending on the person, caffeine content and the individual’s personal fatal level.
“If students are used to consuming caffeine, their body is probably used to it,” Gibbs said. “There can always be too much of a good thing, but as long as you pay attention and know your limits and how it affects you, it probably won’t be a problem.”
Energy drinks have recently received negative attention for being cited in multiple deaths. According to WebMD, Monster Energy, which contains 92 milligrams of caffeine per 8 ounce serving, has been cited in five deaths. The New York Times also reported that 5 Hour Energy has been cited in 13 deaths as of fall 2012. Both companies deny any direct correlation between their products and the deaths.
Drinking a cup or two of coffee to get the day started will typically not cause lasting damage, but consumption can reach the point where the danger of becoming addicted to the stimulant increases. Chaz Mailey, licensed psychologist and coordinator for Alcohol and Drug Education Service, said in an email that an action becomes an addiction when a person begins to have less control over the behavior and becomes preoccupied with it.
“A person can be physiologically and psychologically addicted to [caffeine] through excessive use,” Mailey said. “Withdrawal is actually one of the hallmarks of addictions, but the effects tend to vary based on the substance being consumed.”
Typical signs of caffeine withdrawl include nausea, headache, dizziness and excessive tiredness, Mailey stated. Although commonly not classified with other addictive drugs, caffeine can pose a health threat.
“People tend not to give it much attention because its withdrawal effects are not as severe as, say, alcohol or cocaine. However, the fact still remains that it is an addictive substance,” Mailey said.
For people looking to kick a coffee habit or change up their daily routine, alternative drinks can still provide a pick-me-up. According to “Shape” magazine, green tea, chai tea, lemon water and pomegranate juice can help drinkers avoid an afternoon slump with little to no caffeine.
“Teas have a lot of benefits, including antioxidants,” Gibbs said. “Some people actually prefer tea, and tea has so many benefits and often contains some level of caffeine.”
When getting a nap or some extra sleep at night isn’t an option, the best alternative is actually much simpler than tea, coffee or an energy drink.
“Water goes a long way,” Gibbs said. “People don’t think about water as being helpful in that way, but it really is. That, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables and other energy foods. People underestimate water.”
When the hours of sleep available aren’t enough to stay awake and alert throughout the day, it can sometimes be necessary to turn to a backup for extra energy. Smart decisions about intake can help eliminate negative side-effects and keep caffeine a useful helper instead of a daily crutch.