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  • Ben

Caffeine the good and the bad

Okay so to start of this post I just want to lay down some mind blowing facts about caffeine, just to emphasise the scale of this topic. Currently 80% of the world’s adult population consumes a caffeinated drink each day and this number increases to 90% the adult population in North America. The caffeinated beverage of tea is the 2nd most consumed drink in the world second only to water! So, to summarise these facts, caffeine is a big deal! Caffeine technically counts as a psychoactive drug because of the way it affects our bodies and it is by far the most widely consumed one of these. So let’s first take a look at how caffeine works before we evaluate whether it is good or bad for us.

How does caffeine work?

Firstly, I would like to highlight the fact that how caffeine affects your body is dependent on how much you consume, the source of the caffeine isn’t really that important, it is quantity which is important. So, when some people try to demonize some sources of caffeine and hail others as super beverages, most of the time from a purely caffeine standpoint the source doesn’t really matter. So how does caffeine work? Caffeine falls into a category of psychoactive drugs called ‘stimulants’, there is a substance in your body called Adenosine which is the substance which builds up and makes you feel sleepy, essentially what caffeine does is block the adenosine receptors so that your body doesn’t feel sleepy.

This isn’t where the caffeine affects stop though, caffeine also stimulates the central nervous system which is what helps you to feel alert, this is also why if you have too much caffeine you can feel hyper alert and on edge.

When can caffeine be good

There are a lot of positive effects of caffeine which have been reported, some have been more strongly scientifically proven while some others are more anecdotal:

· Weight loss (this is 2 fold; caffeine works as an appetite suppressant and also helps stimulate thermogenesis meaning the body generates more heat and energy from digesting food)

· Caffeine helps to boost alertness and memory

· Caffeine has been shown to help improve endurance performance, endurance capacity and lower the rate of perceived exertion. Whether caffeine has a positive effect on shorter forms of exercise has not yet been conclusively proven

· Some studies have shown that consumption of caffeine may help enhance some thinking skills and slow the mental decline which comes with age.

· Some studies have shown that lifelong caffeine consumption may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease

· There is some research linking caffeine consumption to a reduced risk of developing cataracts

· There has been a link identified between caffeine and reduced risk of skin cancer, however one study was rather unusual and included smearing caffeine on the skin of mice, while the other was comparing people drinking more than 3 cups of caffeine a day (way too much by most standards) to people drinking less than 1 cup a month, so I think this link may be a bit on the weak side and I’d recommend sticking to applying sun cream

· Another study has identified a reduced risk of Kidney stones in those who drink more caffeine

· A study of almost a million people identified a 49% lower rate of mouth cancer in people who drank caffeine, the catch was the people tested drank 4 cups of coffee a day, so while it reduced the risk of mouth cancer I would suggest it likely caused other problems instead.

· A Swedish study identified a 22-25% lower risk of stroke in women who drank 2 or more cups of coffee vs 1 or no cups of coffee

· A study found a 1% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, personally, since the percentage here is so low I would suspect that this is more of a correlated relationship rather than a causal one and that the slightly reduced risk was caused more as a result of the appetite suppressant effects of coffee, meaning people consuming it went longer without eating, allowing their blood sugar to stabilise more, in turn reducing their type 2 diabetes risk.

When can caffeine be bad

· Caffeine increases the amount of acid in your stomach which can cause an upset tummy or heart burn.

· Caffeine can make blood pressure increase in the short term, so it is worth asking a doctor if it is safe for you to consume caffeine if you have hypertension

· Caffeine in large amounts can affect the absorption of calcium, this can lead to bone thinning (osteoporosis)

· Caffeine also affects the reproductive system; some evidence has been shown that women who are trying to get pregnant should limit their caffeine since caffeine can affect estrogen production

· During pregnancy you need to be very careful with caffeine consumption, caffeine travels in the blood stream and is passed from mother to foetus through the placenta, caffeine being a stimulant can cause the baby’s heart rate and metabolism to increase, which can slow the growth of the foetus and increase the risk of miscarriage.

· Anxiety, this is one of the most common negative side effects which people come across. This can be a problem for anyone, but it is much more common in people who already suffer with anxiety disorders.

· Caffeine withdrawals, your body quickly becomes accustomed to caffeine consumption and can actually become very dependent on it, as a result if you try to stop you can experience very unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as; headaches, anxiety, tremors, depressive mood, irritability, fatigue and difficulty concentrating

· This final point is very important so I am going to put it in bold, all caps and underlined: IT IS POSSIBLE TO OVERDOSE ON CAFFEINE

Just like with anything the amount of caffeine which someone can handle varies from person to person, but too much caffeine can cause very serious health problems and can even be fatal.

So, there we have it, a completely inconclusive overview of the good and bad of caffeine! Okay no in all seriousness it is impossible to say whether caffeine is good or bad, we are in an age of growing knowledge and research and what we know now about our bodies and what we put into it is significantly more than what we knew 10 years ago or 20, or 30, so it stands to reason that in 50 years we will know even more and one of the things we may know is that caffeine might be terrible for us or it may be a miracle cure. We just don’t know! But this is the same for so many things in our lives, we don’t know the long term effects of consuming vegetables which have been sprayed with pesticides or of drinking water from the tap with the current water treatment methods. The answer to the long term effects of these is impossible to say, so all we can do is look at what we know now and make the best judgment we can with that information. With the current information I think it’s safe for most people to work off the conclusion that if they want to consume caffeine then drinking caffeine in moderation is perfectly safe and may actually benefit their health and physical performance. The key is moderation!

Next week’s topic – The mental health benefits of exercise

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