Caffeine – The good, the bad and the ugly

July 12, 2011

Health Issues of Caffeine 


Many people today consume about two to four cups of coffee or other caffeinated beverages a day. Coffee is well-known to be the number one caffeinated beverage choice for adults while soft drinks are the largest source of caffeine for children. Caffeine, as a drug, makes people feel more alert, gives them more energy, improves their mood, and may make them more productive (Banerjee, 2004).            

Different drinks have very different amounts of caffeine added in each serving. In fact, many drinks described as decaf, low-caffeine or caffeine-free drinks actually do contain amounts of caffeine.          

Caffeine is considered the most widely used stimulant drug in the world. Many athletes actually use caffeine as a way to improve their athletic performance. However, many of these top athletes confess to being unsure about how much caffeine they need to take in order for it to be effective as an energy and performance booster. They are likewise unsure if there will be any adverse health effects of its daily and excessive consumption.           

In fact, the role of caffeine as a performance enhancing drug is still controversial. Therefore, it is very important to consider its potential adverse effects on one’s health.          

Now, because caffeine is included in so many common drinks, it is important to know what it really it is, how it is made, and how it affects one’s health.            Even though caffeine consumption is a common habit to most of us, it could also be the root of many health problems. There are a lot of studies made about the relationship between the consumption of caffeine and a number of diseases. This article will provide information about caffeine including its sources, its health risks, its impact on athletic performance, and even the experts’ recommendation with regards to its daily consumption.  What is Caffeine? 

      The word “caffeine” came from the German word “kaffee” and from the French word “café”, which both mean coffee. It is a bitter, white crystalline xanthine alkaloid that is a psychoactive stimulant drug. It was first discovered by a German chemist named Friedrich Ferdinand Runge in 1819. He made up the term “kaffein”, a chemical compound found in coffee, which later on became caffeine in English. 

  Caffeine can be found naturally in certain leaves, beans, and fruits of over 60 plants worldwide.   Caffeine is a natural component of chocolate, coffee, and tea. It is used as an added ingredient in most colas, many other carbonated drinks and most energy drinks. It can be also be found in some diet pills and over-the-counter pain relievers and medicines.   The table below shows the list of items that contain caffeine and the corresponding urine levels they produce. Source:   Unlike some other nutrients or chemicals, it is not stored for long in the body – it is absorbed very quickly- but you may feel its effects for up to 6 hours. Its effects considerably diminish within about three hours. It has been shown that it affects mood, stamina, the cerebral vascular system, and gastric and colonic activity of a person. Betty Kovacs, a registered dietician and Director of nutrition for the New York Obesity Research Center Weight Loss Program, and Melissa Conrad, a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist and currently the Chief Medical Editor of, estimate that around 90 percent of Americans consume caffeine everyday in one form or another. Their daily average caffeine consumption is about 280 mg/day, while 20%-30% consume more than 600 mg daily. Interestingly, the top three sources of caffeine in adults are coffee (70%), soda (16%), and tea (12%).     Source of Antioxidant             Coffee is considered the number one source of antioxidants in an average person’s diet.          Antioxidants are substances that protect your cells against the effects of free radicals. Free radicals are organic molecules which are responsible for aging, tissue damage, and some possibly some diseases. They are called “free” because they afloat around until they stabilize and the term “radicals” connotes the wide variety of molecules from which they can take an electron.

Even though antioxidants are known to be good for one’s health, taking them as supplements is still controversial. Before, antioxidants supplements were thought to be harmless but now, there are reports of an increasing number of interactions and potential toxicity.     

From a study entitled, “Is Caffeine a Good Scavenger of Oxygenated Free Radicals?” conducted by Annia Galano and Jorge Rafael León-Carmona, they  found a lot of evidences suggesting that coffee is one of the richest sources of healthful antioxidants in the average person’s diet. They stressed that it is the source of powerful antioxidant effects that may help protect people from Alzheimer’s and other diseases. However, scientists know little about exactly how caffeine works in scavenging the so-called free radicals that have damaging effects in the body. And those few studies sometimes have reached contradictory conclusions.

How it is made?

Caffeine is made of an active substance called xanthine which is responsible for the stimulant effect of the coffee plant’s berry. Xanthines are compounds made of the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. It is one of the families of stimulants that are present in more than 60 species of plants. Some scientists claim that these plant-derived beverages and foods contain methylxanthines as a pesticide to protect against bugs – especially in warmer climates.

Risks of its Consumption 

Cardiovascular Problems  

Too much caffeine can lead to cardiovascular problems. When you consume caffeine your blood pressure and heart rate  increase. In fact, an overuse of caffeine can lead to heart disease. In a study made by Martin Myers about the “Cardiovascular effects of Caffeine”, he found out that there are a number of theories that caffeine is associated with the development of cardiac arrhythmias, an increase in heart rate, higher blood pressure, and a higher incidence of coronary heart disease.   Some studies stress that both decaf and regular coffee increase cholesterol and homocysteine, which many believe to be associated with increased risk of heart attacks.

In fact, according to Stephen Cherniske, a Nutritional Biochemist, caffeine is linked to coronary vasospasms, which are well-known to cause approximately 20% of all fatal heart attacks. These findings are based on his book entitled, “Caffeine Blues, Wake up to the Dangers of America’s #1 Drug”.    Stress   Too much consumption of caffeine can likewise stimulate the excretion of stress hormones in our bodies.

This could lead to increased levels of anxiety, irritability, muscular tension and pain, indigestion, insomnia, and decreased immunity. Emotional Disturbances   Aside from the stresses, anxieties, and irritabilities which are listed above, the effects of quitting the consumption of caffeine are depression and attention disorders. Depression may occur when the stimulant effects wear off from the body while mental performance reduces during the recovery period after quitting caffeine.

The brain chemistry is being adjusted thereby causing blood flow to decrease by as much as 30%. This affects an individual’s memory and mental performance.   In other words, it can be very unpleasant and difficult to quit consuming caffeine.  

Blood Sugar Swings  

People who have diabetes or hypoglycemia problems should avoid taking caffeine because it stimulates a temporary surge in blood sugar which could produce an overproduction of insulin that causes a blood sugar crash within hours. This could also result in weight gain because insulin causes the body to store excess sugar as fat.   Keep in mind that many popular diet sodas – which are commonly consumed by diabetics – contain significant quantities of caffeine.  

Gastrointestinal Problems  

Many people experience some problems with their stomach after drinking coffee – especially if they consume more than they normally do. This is because there is an increase of secretion of hydrochloric acid – which can also lead to an increased risk of ulcers.   In fact, both decaf and regular coffee lower the pressure of the valve between the esophagus and the stomach. The highly acidic contents of the stomach pass up to the esophagus which could lead to heartburn and gastro-esophageal reflux disease. This is the reason why many over-the-counter drugs are antacids – and why so many people consume antacids regularly.  

Nutritional Deficiencies  

Caffeine has the characteristics of absorbing some nutrients needed by the body for good health. Some of these nutrients are calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and trace minerals. Caffeine causes the urinary excretion of such minerals leaving our body with lesser nutrients.    This is a prime reason why caffeine can cause or at least contribute to dehydration.  These minerals are key to maintaining a proper electrolyte balance.  

Acid Imbalance      

Based on various studies, over 208 acids in coffee can add to indigestion and a wide variety of health problems which could result from over-acidity associated with arthritic, rheumatic and skin irritations. The burning sensation that people experience after drinking coffee or other caffeine-related products is caused by an increased secretion of acid in the stomach.  

Impact on Athletic Performance           

According to Nancy Clark, a sports dietician who counsels casual and competitive athletes at Healthworks, states that caffeine is one of the best-tested ergogenic aids for athletes. It is known to help athletes train harder and longer. It stimulates the brain and contributes to clearer thinking and greater concentration.  

Based on her findings, there are more than 74 good studies on the use of caffeine for both endurance exercise and even short-term, higher intensity exercise. Most of the studies conclude that caffeine does actually enhance athletic performance. It makes the athlete’s effort seem easier than the normal state of mind without caffeine intake.            

Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky of McMaster University in Canada claims that caffeine increases the power output of muscles by releasing calcium that is stored in muscle. This could enable athletes to keep going longer or faster in the same length of time. Caffeine also affects the brain’s sensation of exhaustion which improves one’s endurance to training and exercise.    

However, some studies have shown that caffeine can cause a physical dependence especially if someone consumes an equivalent of four or more cups of coffee per day. Some of the negative symptoms involve in excess consumption of caffeine are headache, fatigue, restlessness, stress, and even muscle pain. It is now important to consider the amount of caffeine to be consumed in order not to experience the unhelpful effects of caffeine.   Again, as caffeine accelerates dehydration, it is important to compensate by consuming more fluids and electrolytes when consuming caffeine prior to or during exercise.

Expert Recommendations

David C. Dugdale III, MD, Professor of Medicine in the University of Washington School of Medicine, recommends three 8 oz. cups of coffee (about 250 milligrams of caffeine) per day. He said that such amount is considered an average or moderate amount of caffeine intake. He added that ten 8 oz. cups of coffee per day is considered excessive and might result negatively to one’s health.  

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Medical Association (AMA), if you consume a moderate amount of caffeine, it is generally recognized as safe.   They divided the amount of caffeine intake through low, moderate, high, and heavy levels. A low to moderate intake is 130 mg-300 mg per day, a moderate is 200 mg-300 mg per day, high doses are above 400 mg per day, and heavy caffeine consumption is more than 600 mg/day.   Whereas for pregnant women, experts agree that caffeine consumption can be safe for them when it is less than 300 mg. Any excess of that amount could be hazardous for the baby. This could lead to birth defects and miscarriages.  

Scientists at the National Addiction Centre in London made a conclusion from their study of more than 9,000 people and claimed that those who ingested caffeine scored higher on tests of reaction times, reasoning, and memory. Other studies stated that caffeine improves IQ test scores of individuals. In fact, even as little as the amount of 100mg of caffeine boost mood and memory. Larger amounts like 200mg or more are needed for optimal mental and physical performance.   In summary, while caffeine is a commonly used drug with specific short-term benefits, it is probably not worth the added health risks over the long term – especially when consumed in large quantities.   



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One Response to Caffeine – The good, the bad and the ugly

  1. CrossFit Valley Center on August 8, 2011 at 11:33 am

    […] if you’re having a few cups of joe through the day, check this out to get an update on the caffeine you take in. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Monday […]

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