The Benefits of Caffeine


by Candace Chemtob

Ninety percent of us are habitual coffee drinkers and can’t imagine starting the day without our morning cup. This love affair with coffee, and other caffeinated beverages, is deeply rooted and is traces back more than a millennia when a goat herder noticed his herd became energized after eating red berries (later named coffee). The shepherd decided to try these red berries himself and the rest is history. Initially, the entire coffee “fruit” (including the bean) were blended together and consumed raw. Then, in the early thirteenth century, Arabs began roasting the beans and the modern version of coffee was born. There is a long history of coffee in America dating back to the Revolutionary War, when drinking coffee, instead of tea, was considered a patriotic act.

Fast forward to today, and caffeine is the number one socially accepted and freely used drug in the world with an average U.S. per capita intake of 280 mg per day. Caffeine is classified as a drug because it stimulates the central nervous system. and makes us feel energized. Until recently, despite the strong and desirable psychotropic effects of caffeine, it was generally recognized to be bad for your health. Studies had previously linked coffee consumption to heart disease and cancer. New research has found quite the opposite—caffeine intake has been linked to many health benefits. Your morning cup of coffee may be more doing more for you than just providing a pleasant burst of energy.

Many of us have experienced the negative side effects of too much caffeine. Excessive intake can lead to caffeine intoxication a syndrome marked by high blood pressure, nervousness, anxiety, tremors, insomnia, gastrointestinal upset and a fast heart beat. Additionally, caffeine can disrupt healthy sleeping patterns. While a morning cup of coffee may not cause you to lose sleep, a dose of caffeine in the afternoon may keep you up at night because it takes the liver up to ten hours to metabolize this drug.

New research is exciting for the coffee and tea lovers amongst us. Caffeine has positive effects not only on our perceived energy level, but also on our mood. Low dietary doses of caffeine (20-200 mg) generally produce positive mood effects such as increased well-being, happiness, energetic arousal, alertness, and sociability. While the benefits of feeling energetic and being in a good mood on your mental health should not be underestimated, caffeine may also improve your overall health. Researchers have found that coffee consumption reduces the risk of death by 10%. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute studied 400,000 subjects aged fifty to seventy-one and found that coffee drinkers were “less likely to die from heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, injuries and accidents, diabetes and infections.” And as if that is not enough good news, the Mayo Clinic reports that “studies have shown that coffee may have the additional health benefits of protecting against Parkinson’s disease, type two diabetes and liver disease, including liver cancer.”

For the athlete, in moderate amounts, caffeine may improve performance. I write this with some trepidation: student athletes might take this information and subscribe to the more is better attitude, and take this drug in excess. However, evidence that caffeine is indeed an effective ergogenic aid (meaning it improves performance) is compelling. In March 2016, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Dietetics Association stated in their position paper that caffeine can “reduce the perception of fatigue and allow exercise to be sustained at optimal intensity/output for longer”. On the flip side, however, the paper warns that excessive caffeine intake “causes side effects (e.g., tremor, anxiety, increased heart rate)… and is toxic when consumed in very large doses. Rules of National Collegiate Athletic Association competition prohibit the intake of large doses that produce urinary caffeine levels exceeding 15 mg/ml…” The position paper does not go as far to recommend a specific amount of caffeine, though it is safe to assume that this amount should be moderate and within the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines of restricting caffeine intake to no more than 400 mg (the equivalent of approximately four cups of strong, brewed coffee) in adults, 100 mg for adolescents and zero intake for children.

Used responsibly and in moderate amounts, caffeine can have many positive effects on your mood, overall health and athletic performance. Enjoy your java!