Have you ever drunk a cup or two, or three, of coffee to help you with a long studying session? How about before you leave for work or after a drinking binge?
Tea and coffee are the major sources of caffeine in our diet, but there are significant amounts to be found in other foods, such as chocolate bars, drinking chocolate, cola, sports drinks and ice creams. Caffeine is also an important ingredient in some cold and pain relief medications. Without doubt, caffeine acts as a stimulant, which can stave off fatigue and enhance mental performance when we are feeling sluggish. It stimulates the heart, opens the airways and can even aid digestion by stimulating gastric juices. However, there is another side to this most acceptable of drugs.
Caffeine acts like stress on the body, causing the physical symptoms of the ‘fight or flight’ response. It stimulates the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol which, in turn, cause the liver to break down its store of glycogen and release it as glucose into the bloodstream. In response, the pancreas releases insulin, which helps deposit the blood glucose into the body cells. As calcium is needed to increase the heart rate, improve muscle contraction and thicken the blood, this mineral is mobilised from the bones. In short, the body prepares for action. The problem is that when we drink or eat caffeine, we are rarely preparing for any physical action. We are usually drinking, or having a cup of tea, coffee or cola at our desks to keep us going. In effect, the body has responded to a false alarm but the physical results of this state of alert remain the same.
If caffeine were the only stressor in our lives, then perhaps it would be less of a problem. However, the combination of stressors we all live with can make caffeine detrimental to our health. Medical experts advise us to drink no more than six cups of tea or coffee a day. Nutritionists on the other hand, believe this is far too much and it is certainly best for those with high blood pressure, circulatory problems, and kidney disease to try quitting caffeine intake altogether. People who are trying to conceive should try to restrict their intake to one cup of coffee a day, while pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers can also benefit from restricted intake. Caffeine can be transferred to babies while they are still in the womb, and it is not unknown for them to have withdrawal symptoms after birth.
Unfortunately, caffeine is habit-forming and can become addictive. The more we rely on caffeine, the more we end up needing it. Our adrenal glands become desensitised to caffeine and the amount that would once have been a pick-me-up is no longer effective. But even before the adrenal glands start giving one trouble, it is common to experience swings in mood and energy levels. The sudden rise in insulin which results from an intake of caffeine can deprive the brain of glucose, dizziness, headaches, and cravings for more caffeine or sugary foods, reinforcing the addictive cycle. Some people experience sleep difficulties, while others find it difficult to get going in the morning until after they’ve had at least two or three cups of coffee or tea.
If you have relied on caffeine for some time, whether it’s fresh coffee to pick you up, or a bar of chocolate when you are feeling low, cutting down or giving it up can initially make you feel sluggish and tired. Some people experience withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, muscle aches and irritability.
The best way to adjust to having less caffeine is to reduce your intake over a period of weeks. Going cold turkey is often successful as well, however it can be pretty uncomfortable. Alternatives for people who enjoy hot drinks can include herbal and fruit teas. Decaffeinated coffee is another option, however not a totally caffeine-free one, since even this still contains very low levels of caffeine.