March is Caffeine Awareness Month, it is sponsored by the Caffeine Awareness Alliance, a group started in 2003 by Marina Kushner, an anti-caffeine activist. She is the author of a book entitled Life without Caffeine, where she writes about the dangers of caffeine consumption. But how bad is caffeine and does it really deserve its own month?
First, a little background. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and has been used for thousands of years to ward off drowsiness and increase alertness. According to ScienceofCooking.com, caffeine is found in over 60 plants. Beverages containing caffeine like coffee and tea are by far the leading sources of caffeine but it is also found in soft drinks, energy drinks and over the counter pain relievers, cold medications and weight loss products.
Ninety percent of North Americans consume caffeine daily.
Since we get most of our caffeine from coffee or tea let’s take a look at the impact those beverages have on your health. Concerns about coffee go all the back to the 1500’s, CNN.com reported that in 1511 the mayor of Mecca shut down coffeehouses because it’s patrons were more likely to gamble and “engage in criminally unorthodox sexual situations.” Ironically in the 1600’s, it was thought to cause impotence. In the 1800’s, some thought it was as bad as morphine, cocaine, nicotine or strychnine and could cause blindness. And as late as the 1970’s and 80’s, it was thought that coffee could be a major contributor to heart attacks.
Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy a cup or 2 of java a day the latest research is far more encouraging. In a study published in the American Heart Association Journal Circulation on November 16, 2015, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health reported that people who drink about 3 to 5 cups of either decaffeinated or caffeinated coffee had a lower risk of death from cardiovascular diseases, neurological diseases, type 2 diabetes and suicide. Senior author Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology commented, “this study provides further evidence that moderate consumption of coffee may confer health benefits in terms of reducing premature death due to several diseases.”
When it comes to tea, the news might even be better. Jeffery Bloomberg, director of the Antioxidant Research Center at Tufts’ University commented in 2013 that “If there is anything that can confidently be communicated to the public, it’s the strong association of tea drinking with a lower risk of chronic disease, particularly heart disease, and the demonstration of that benefit through clinical trial.” Tufts’ University Health and Nutrition Letter also reports that in addition to lowering the risk of heart disease, tea consumption may also help prevent: osteoporosis, improve digestion, lower the risk of some cancers and reduce the risk of functional disability.
One other persistent myth is that caffeine consumption can lead to dehydration. In fact, caffeinated beverages such as coffee and tea contribute to meeting your hydration needs.
While most of the concerns about caffeine consumption have been alleviated, there are some concerns associated with heavy consumption. The consensus is to limit your consumption to no more than 400 mg. per day, the equivalent of 4 8-ounce cups of coffee per day or 8 8-ounce cups of tea. Beyond that level, caffeine might contribute to feeling jittery, nervousness, and irritability. Because of its stimulating effect, it can contribute to insomnia if consumed within 6 hours of bed time and some highly sensitive individuals might need to cut it out for up to 14 hours prior to turning off the lights. The March of Dimes recommends that pregnant women and nursing moms limit their caffeine intake to no more than 200 mg per day. Adolescents should not exceed 100 mg/day, younger children should avoid caffeinated beverages. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and teenagers eliminate high caffeine “energy drinks”. Finally, while it is rarely used this way, it is possible to purchase pure powdered caffeine on the internet. Pure caffeine powder has the equivalent of 28 cups of coffee in one teaspoon. It is a powerful stimulant in small amounts and has been implicated in the death of two young men. The FDA advises consumers to avoid pure powdered caffeine.
At this point, I think that the research is clear, while there are some concerns with exposure to high levels of caffeine and some groups of people have to be more aware or their intake than others, the major sources of caffeine in our diets, coffee and tea have a far more positive than negative effect on our health and wellbeing.
Interestingly, the Associated Press reported in August 2014 that the Caffeine Awareness Association, the group that sponsored Caffeine Awareness month, was ordered to disband when its founder plead guilty of operating a community service scam. Those needing to work off court ordered community service requirements could purchase an e-book about caffeine and could satisfy their requirement by answering a multiple choice quiz. Upon completing the quiz, the association offered letters certifying community service completion, charging fees based on the number of hours needed to be served.