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Caffeine, the world’s most popular drug

By: ELIZABETH HARTLAND | [email protected]

Elizabeth Hartland has a Bachelor of Science Degree in nutrition, together with a Diploma from the Institute of Nutritional Therapy. She is married with two young children and has a passion for good nutrition and helping others to find better health.

Caffeine is classified as a stimulant drug, which acts on the central nervous system – the brain and spinal cord. It is probably the world’s most popular drug coming from tea, coffee, chocolate, cola based drinks and from some drugs, mainly pain killers.

Caffeine addiction

So often one hears about people who just can’t get going without their morning coffee or tea, or who get morning headaches unless they drink coffee. Habitual coffee or tea drinkers become literally addicted to their brew.

Caffeine addiction does not require large amounts of the drug to be consumed so long as regular doses are taken. A three cup-a-day person may become just as addicted as a 10 cup-a-day person, but a modest coffee or tea drinker is probably less likely than a heavy consumer to realise that addiction is present.

Like any addiction, as time goes by, more and more of the drug may be needed to achieve the same effect and because your adrenal glands produce more stress hormones when you drink caffeine, these glands can get very tired and sluggish when constantly overworked for many years.  

Sluggish adrenal glands can result in weight gain, slowing down of mental processes, memory deterioration and, in general, many of the signs of ‘middle age’ that we tend to take for granted. In the 1970s, excess consumption of caffeine was discovered as a cause of mental disturbance when an American psychiatrist realised that some of his patients suffering from chronic anxiety, in fact, had chronic mild coffee poisoning.

Other problems that may develop from drinking too much caffeine include restlessness, nervousness or anxiety, insomnia or palpitations after drinking coffee and then yawning, irritability and inability to work properly after being deprived of caffeine for a few hours.  

Caffeine and fatigue

Unlike sugar, which at least draws part of its energy surge from its caloric nature, caffeine-containing drinks such as unsweetened coffee or tea have no intrinsic energy value whatsoever. They do not give energy but cause an endocrine emergency action to extract energy from the body’s vital reserves in the liver and muscles.

Caffeine causes glycogen stored in these tissues to be mobilised and converted to the body’s fuel, glucose. Ultimately, this extraction of energy leaves the reserves severely depleted, just as an unwise spender soon finds his pockets empty. The result is profound weakness and chronic fatigue.

Caffeine and migraine

It is well known that caffeine withdrawal can be a major cause of headaches. Many headache remedies contain caffeine, working on ‘the hair of the dog’ principle.

Caffeine actually constricts blood vessels and, therefore, helps to relieve headaches of vascular origin (a migraine headache is one type of vascular headache).  

Many people report chronic morning headaches until the first cup of coffee is consumed. This ‘coffee cure’ has little real curative effect. In fact, due to the law of dual effect which governs all drug activity in the body, any agent which elicits a given action in the body will later cause an equal but opposite reaction.  

Therefore, the vasoconstriction caused by the caffeine is followed by vasodilatation (the cause of headaches) later on. This is one of the reasons a mid-morning and mid-afternoon headache will reoccur in heavy coffee consumers.

Caffeine and cancer

Caffeine belongs to a group of drugs called ‘methylxanthines’. There is now strong evidence supporting an association between the consumption of methylxanthines and the occurrence of breast cysts.  

There is also preliminary epidemiological evidence that heavy coffee drinking is associated with ovarian cancer as well as cancer of the colon, bladder and pancreas.

Caffeine and insomnia

Caffeine, as a stimulant will often be the cause for insomnia, especially when drinks containing caffeine are consumed just before bedtime.

Remember coke contains caffeine, so for those of you who consume a coke (diet or otherwise) either on its own or as a mix, when out for an evening, this could be causing the sleepless night you always seem to experience.

Caffeine and blood sugar balance

Caffeine will cause an increase in the release of insulin from the pancreas and thus can cause hypoglycaemic symptoms.

The caffeine-free diet

In the first week of avoiding caffeine, people can often experience symptoms of headaches, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, insomnia and sometimes fatigue. Whilst these symptoms will pass within the space of a few days to a week, it may be better for some individuals to simply reduce their intake of caffeine gradually and introduce some of the following alternatives:

Herbal fruit teas:

There is a wide variety of choices of fruit teas like raspberry and ginseng, lemon verbena, mixed berry teas, etc., and very often they are sold in single sachets so that you can buy and try without being committed to a whole box of tea bags.

Rooibosch Eleven O’Clock Tea:

A very tea-like alternative to tea when made with milk but contains no caffeine, very little tannin and a mild muscle relaxant.

Coffee alternatives:

These include Barley Cup, Carro, Teecino, Bamboo and Dandelion Coffee. Teecino, made from a blend of herbs, fruits, grains and nuts, is said to match the taste of real coffee.

Chocolate alternatives:

The bad news is there are no real alternatives, although some people find carob acceptable and this can be purchased in the health-food shop. Fresh fruit or dried fruits, nuts and seeds, which are intrinsically sweet, can provide a good nutritious alternative.