Caffeine is probably the most abused drug in our society. Six out of ten adults drink coffee every day and almost all children regularly eat chocolate and drink cola, both of which are rich sources of caffeine. With a single cup of regular coffee providing 100-150 mg. of caffeine, the average intake per person each day is 200 mg. Caffeine has an immediate and powerful effect on the body and its use rapidly becomes habitual. 90% of caffeine is metabolized and only 10% is excreted from the body.
The effects of caffeine on the body are many and varied, though most are mediated by the nervous system. In terms of its biochemistry, caffeine is closely related to nicotine, cocaine and heroin, and in many ways its effects are similar to these narcotic drugs.
Caffeine and the nervous system
Caffeine is initially a powerful stimulant to the nervous system, giving that familiar ‘coffee high’. After a variable length of time there will be a ‘let down’ effect as the caffeine wears off and the person feels exhausted and depressed. This encourages repeated use of caffeine to maintain the high.
Regular use of caffeine causes nervous irritability, anxiety, muscle tension, shakiness and headaches. The use of caffeine is a major cause of insomnia. Caffeine has been implicated in causing epileptic seizures, psychosis and respiratory failure.
In children the intake of cola and chocolate can lead to hyperactivity and lack of concentration. Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) is destroyed by caffeine. This vitamin regulates many aspects of brain function and a deficiency will lead to nervous exhaustion, depression, poor memory, drowsiness, inability to concentrate and loss of appetite.
All mental and physical stimulation by caffeine ceases after an intake of 200 mg. (equivalent to 2 cups of regular coffee).
Caffeine and the circulation
Caffeine increases plasma triglycerides and cholesterol. Caffeine stimulates heart muscle and can cause rapid or irregular heart beats and palpitations. There is a 60% increase in heart attacks associated with daily consumption of 1 – 5 cups of coffee, and a 120% increase with more than 5 cups per day.
Caffeine and the digestive system
Caffeine increases the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach and thus aggravates peptic ulcers. There is a 72% greater chance of developing stomach ulcers if you are a coffee drinker. Two cups of coffee per day doubles your chances of developing pancreatic cancer.
Caffeine inhibits the absorption of iron. Caffeine is metabolized by the liver and a high intake stresses the liver and impairs its blood cleansing abilities.
Caffeine and the urinary system
Coffee and cola drinkers have an increased chance of developing cancer of the bladder. Caffeine is an irritant to the kidneys and acts as a diuretic.
Caffeine and birth defects
Three or more cups of coffee per day during pregnancy can lead to major defects of the central nervous system such as cleft palate, joint & bone abnormalities, neural tube defects, blood tumors and irregular development of the jaw. Large doses of caffeine may stimulate contractions and cause miscarriage.
Miscellaneous effects of caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant of the thyroid gland.
Caffeine is an immunosuppressant and thus impairs the body’s ability to fight disease.
Caffeine predisposes women to develop fibrocystic breast disease and increases the chances of developing breast cancer.
Breaking the caffeine habit
The following symptoms frequently occur when a regular caffeine intake is stopped:
- Headaches, frequently severe and lasting up to 4 weeks.
- Drowsiness, lethargy and malaise.
- Runny nose and ‘cotton mouth’
- Nervousness and irritability.
- Trembling and chills.
- Insomnia and nightmares.
- Depression and loss of concentration.
- Cravings for coffee, tea, cola, chocolate or nicotine.
Many people feel so rough when quitting caffeine that they give up, or they stop drinking coffee but replace it with tea or chocolate. If you can hang in there for at least a couple of weeks then eventually the withdrawal effects will diminish and you will begin to feel much better then you have probably for years.
Make sure if you are cutting out coffee that you replace it with other, healthier, fluids such as spring water, herb teas and fruit juice.
What about decaffeinated products?
The National Cancer Institute has warned that Trichloroethylene (TCE), the chemical most commonly used to remove caffeine, has been shown to cause liver cancer. They also warn that 3 common TCE substitutes are also possible carcinogens. Water decaffeination is safer but it still leaves behind many other chemicals with known adverse effects in the body. Until there exist new safe methods, it is best to avoid all products which have or once had caffeine. If you do choose a decaffeinated product look for swiss water processed or carbon dioxide flushed products as these have the least impurities.
Is there anything good to say about caffeine?
Well, actually, yes. The bitterness makes it a great liver stimulant and detoxifier as long as you don’t load it with sugar syrup and chocolate sprinkles so it is sweet instead of bitter. Small and black and taken before meals is the most medicinal way even though that is not how most people choose to use it. There are studies being now linking coffee use to lowered risk of liver cancer. It gives us quick energy and alertness but leaves an empty, tired feeling afterwards so cannot be done too often without some depletion and detriment. and finally, coffee has shown positive benefit in cases of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia, both prevention and alleviation of symptoms, at least in early stages.