To Your Health

The pros and cons of caffeine

Q. I need some caffeine to get started in the morning. What is good and bad about the various sources of caffeine?

A. A lot of people around the world cannot really get going in the morning until they have caffeine from some source. The source is usually coffee or tea, but is sometimes a soft drink, chocolate, maté, guarana, or even pure caffeine from a pill. Caffeine does give a temporary lift, but the amount required to improve mental performance is not large. Even 50 milligrams (about one-half cup of coffee or one cup of tea) will be enough to give your brain a boost that lasts several hours, and more is not necessarily better.

Caffeine, the most widely used drug in the world, is naturally produced in the leaves, seeds, and fruits of more than 60 plants as a deterrent to insects. The plant phenols and the other alkaloids that accompany caffeine greatly influence an individual's response to the caffeine source. Caffeine is one of many alkaloids that each have different biochemical effects and are present in different ratios in the different plant sources.

What is good in caffeine sources is the antioxidant content. The most famous, if not the most abundant, are the antioxidants in tea, but there are also antioxidants in coffee, chocolate, maté, guarana, and cola, though there is really no evidence that the antioxidant content in cola is significant. The recent fashion for adding fruit juice to soft drinks may be providing these with some antioxidant power. There are no antioxidants in the caffeine pills such as Vivarin, No-Doz, or the pain relievers such as Excedrin that contain caffeine.

In its natural form, caffeine tastes very bitter, and so most caffeine sources add something to camouflage the bitter taste. Addition of sugar is common, and since sugar has no nutritional benefit and is somewhat detrimental, it can be classified as one of the bad things about caffeine. The addition of phosphoric acid to colas, a move that worsens an already existing imbalance between calcium and phosphorus in the American diet, is another bad move. On the other hand, the addition of lemon to iced tea, for instance, would represent a good move.

The reports of serious problems from caffeine have proved controversial. While drinking coffee and tea may have a tendency to spoil your appetite for more nutritious food, affect your sleep pattern, aggravate mood swings, and interfere with the absorption of iron, it is not stored in the body, and ill effects pass within a few hours. However, women should be aware that fibrocystic breast disease is common among women who consume a lot of caffeine.

Regular users who suddenly stop consuming caffeine may experience withdrawal symptoms including drowsiness, headaches, irritability, nausea and vomiting, and depression. To avoid this, first keep a precise record of caffeine for a week, remembering to count all caffeine sources. Then reduce intake by about 100 milligrams per week. For adults, limiting caffeine consumption to 100 milligrams per day, primarily from tea, seems to be safe and even beneficial. Children are more sensitive to caffeine and metabolize it very slowly, and so should be allowed much less caffeine.

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