The Disadvantages of Caffeine
Like it or not, there are two sides to every coin. There is no up if there’s no down, there is no left without right, and there is no good without bad. No matter how safe or beneficial something is for you, there is fact behind the old adage ‘too much of a good thing’. This holds true for caffeine as well, which is, in actuality, a drug. If you look at the good side of caffeine, we say that it stimulates the central nervous system. On the flip side, you can also say it exaggerates the stress response, which creates changes to the body due to a release of Cortisol, albeit on a temporary basis. Mostly the disadvantages discussed in detail here are only experienced at very high doses, but not always. They can also happen to people who are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine. What are some of the disadvantages of caffeine? Let’s take a look.
Probably the most obvious disadvantage is that too much caffeine can cause disruptions to your regular sleep patterns. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the body, and is a key component to your sleep-wake cycle. If left to its natural devices, your body begins to increase melatonin production once your brain senses darkness. Production peaks in the middle of the night, then slowly recedes as it becomes time to wake. One of the ways caffeine helps keep you awake is that it suppresses melatonin production. Caffeine also has a half-life of four to six hours, so let’s do the math. Say you feel yourself dragging around three in the afternoon, but you still have a lot of work to get through. You decide to have just one more cup of coffee, which for you means about fourteen ounces, or roughly 150mg of caffeine. That means four hours later, at around 7 p.m., your system still has about 75mg (or more!) of caffeine in your body, doing its thing. If this happens once or twice a month, it probably won’t cause much harm. If you make a habit out of it however, your sleep-wake cycle could start to give you problems, such as insomnia.
Due to the stimulating nature of caffeine, it can cause a sharp but short-term rise in blood pressure in someone whether they suffer from hypertension or not. But the research on this topic is controversial. Coffee does raise blood pressure in people who are not used to it but not in regular coffee drinkers. Those that drink caffeine regularly usually develop some tolerance to these effects, so there is little evidence of a long-term increase in blood pressure when caffeine is consumed in safe doses (under 200mg per day). There has also been research showing that temporary spikes in blood pressure could be due to other compounds found in coffee besides caffeine. It is always a good idea to talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
Heart Rate Issues
Heart rhythm disorders can result in tachycardia, which is the clinical term for when your heart rate rises above 100 beats per minute for reasons other than physical exertion. There are a variety of types of tachycardia, including the most popular – atrial fibrillation, known more commonly as Afib. Because caffeine can trigger a tachycardia, some doctors recommend avoiding it altogether if you suffer from this condition.
If you are prone to physical manifestations of anxiety, caffeine can exasperate this condition. It’s a stimulant, which will increase the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. People who suffer from unexplained anxiety are extremely sensitive to changes in adrenaline and can suffer a variety of symptoms including fast heart rate, palpitations, sweating, tingling in the extremities and feelings of overall jitteriness. For some people, a single cup of coffee can send them into a full-blown panic attack. If you find this happens to you, it’s probably best to stay away from caffeine altogether.
Once again, we go back to caffeine being a stimulant. If it stimulates one area of the body, it’s almost a given that other parts may be affected as well. This includes the muscles that control the movement of food through your digestive tract. There is some disagreement whether caffeine is the direct culprit here, or other compounds found in both coffee and tea. But there is little doubt that it can create problems in people that lean toward digestive issues such as chronic constipation/diarrhea or Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Dependency vs. Addiction
There was once a time when the medical community thought that caffeine was addictive, much in the same way as alcohol and illegal drugs could be. This has since been debunked. The definition of addiction is the powerlessness to stop using a substance coupled with failure to meet your societal responsibilities such as work, family and social obligations. The majority of the time, caffeine use does not cause people to withdraw from life. However, regular use of caffeine does form physical dependency. When the body uses a substance, any substance, and develops a tolerance to it, that is a dependency. The body becomes used to having that substance around and begins to depend on the effects the substance creates within. Dependency is not the same as addiction, but it often walks along with addiction. If the body develops a dependency on a substance, and that substance is summarily withheld, a physical process called withdrawal may occur.
Medically recognized as an actual diagnosis, caffeine withdrawal can be extremely unpleasant. The body can develop a tolerance to caffeine relatively quickly. Some studies have shown dependency has happened in only one week in subjects given 400mg of caffeine three times per day. Everyday situations can easily increase the amount of caffeine consumed without a person realizing it. Using a larger mug or having just “one more cup” of coffee to combat extra tiredness can drive up the amount of caffeine you ingest, further increasing your tolerance. If for any reason you pull back the amount of caffeine your body is used to, withdrawal can set in. Symptoms of withdrawal include:
Headaches – This is often the first symptom a victim of caffeine withdrawal will notice. Caffeine causes a narrowing of the blood vessels in the brain. When caffeine is stopped, the blood vessels open up again, and that widening causes a headache.
Lack of Focus – Your body has become used to the adrenaline levels that come with caffeine use. When you take that extra adrenaline production away, your body struggles to learn how to function without it.
Depression – Caffeine is often credited with increasing one’s mood. The stimulation effects and increased production of serotonin (also known as the feel-good hormone) are known to reduce the risk of depression by more than 20% in women. When that help is stopped abruptly, your body lacks the ability to make up for the deficit, which can lead to a depressive response.
Fatigue – Besides taste, one of the most popular reasons people drink coffee is to help them wake up. It increases alertness and reduces fatigue by blocking the adenosine receptors. Taking away the drug that creates those changes will force the body into a state of fatigue that takes time to get over.
There are some ways you can reduce withdrawal symptoms if you need to avoid caffeine for any length of time. Be sure to cut back slowly, a little a day if you can. This will help regulate your body to the new amount of caffeine over a period of time. Be sure to drink enough water as staying well hydrated helps symptoms of fatigue and headaches. Finally, exercise and make sure you're getting enough sleep. Your body is trying to adapt, and that takes energy. Exercise releases endorphins that will help mask symptoms and some solid shut-eye will help replace depleted stores of energy.
As we’ve said before, caffeine is a drug, and it’s possible to overdose on it. People’s ability to tolerate caffeine varies from person to person. While it’s not recommended, some people can handle dosages many times higher than that which is considered safe. Others can feel sick at much lower doses. Symptoms of a mild overdose include headache, dizziness, fever, irritability, increased thirst and insomnia. Although rare, much more serious symptoms of a severe overdose include vomiting, hallucinations, trouble breathing, chest pain, confusion, uncontrollable muscle movements and even convulsions. A serious overdose requires immediate medical attention.
Caffeine is especially troublesome during pregnancy and while nursing. It is recommended that you limit your caffeine intake while pregnant and/or nursing. Caffeine crosses over the placenta and seeps into breast milk, which means that the caffeine you get also goes to your baby. In-vitro, higher caffeine use can result in a low birth weight. If you are nursing, too much caffeine will affect your baby just as it affects you. They can suffer from irritability, jitters, anxiety and more.
You are probably noticing a pattern. Almost all the negatives to caffeine consumption are a direct consequence of the very thing that makes it so attractive. Extra focus, alertness, energy and memory improvements can quickly lead to anxiety, blood pressure spikes, heart rate issues and insomnia. It’s important to remember that caffeine is considered safe for the majority of individuals. If you pay attention to how you feel and adjust your intake accordingly, the benefits of caffeine consumption will outweigh the disadvantages for most of us.