Caffeine Myths, Concerns and Some Surprising Benefits
You probably know that caffeine can be bad for you. But did you know that it could be beneficial too? And not just in the oh-now-I-can-function kind of way? Before you drink a steaming mug of the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, read on.
A legal drug
Caffeine is the only drug that’s naturally present or added to widely consumed foods, and it’s mildly addictive, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). That headache you’ve had all morning because you skipped your morning cup? That’s a withdrawal symptom.
If you’re curious to see how much caffeine is in some popular food and beverages, take a look at CSPI’s caffeine chart. It’s hard to believe caffeine is the least regulated drug in the U.S.
In fact, it only takes less than a week of consuming caffeine daily to see its effects. Withdrawal symptoms include headache, fatigue, decreased alertness, and drowsiness.
It’s long been thought that caffeine may worsen PMS symptoms. However, a University of Massachusetts Amherst study dispelled this notion, finding that caffeine intake is actually not associated with PMS. Lead author and Ph.D. student Alexandra Purdue-Smithe says, “Our results, in conjunction with those of other studies, suggest that current recommendations to reduce or eliminate caffeine to prevent PMS may be unnecessary.”
Caffeine was thought to influence fibrocystic breast disease, but after much research, the National Cancer Institute and the American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs have stated there’s no association, says Dr. Niket Sonpal, assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine.
The American College of Nutrition studied the effects of caffeine on bone loss in postmenopausal women and concluded in a 2000 study that there was no association between caffeine consumption and bone density or bone loss. “In fact, the consumption of caffeine with calcium and vitamin D was shown to help with bones,” Dr. Sonpal says.
Contrary to popular belief, caffeine doesn’t dehydrate or act as a diuretic, but it does contribute to the body’s output of fluid. Caffeine also doesn’t put you at risk for hypertension, as the Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported. “However, consuming sugary beverages in which there is caffeine does put you at risk,” says Dr. Sonpal, “as it can lead to weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and make your blood pressure go up. In other words, the mild rise in your blood pressure from caffeine doesn’t cause long-term issues.”
Evidence exists that moderate caffeine consumption can have positive health effects on women, says Dr. Vanessa Ghaderi, Chief of Endocrinology at Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center in Harbor City, CA. She lists some examples:
- Helps protect against cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, though getting adequate sleep is also important so don’t let caffeine intake interfere with this
- Helps alleviate headaches and asthma
- Coffee is linked to lower rates of Parkinson’s disease and may help prevent certain cancers
- Lower risks of oral cancers for coffee drinkers (decaf has a weaker effect, while no protection has been found with tea)
- Coffee lowers risk of stroke for older women
- Associated with a reduced risk of diabetes (but a causal relationship for this has not definitely been established)
Additionally, studies have shown that caffeine improves alertness, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time, says Dr. Sonpal, basically enhancing athletic performance. “It stimulates you to exercise about 15 percent longer because it keeps you from getting as tired,” he says. “It can also act as a mild analgesic and prevent you from feeling sore as fast.”
A National Institute of Child Health and Human Development released a study that confirmed what we’ve long suspected: High caffeine intake is linked to miscarriage. The study also found that women who took multivitamins before they conceived as well as early in the pregnancy were 50 percent less likely to miscarry regardless of caffeine.
Other ways in which caffeine can negatively affect women, according to Dr. Ghaderi:
- Increases heart rate and heart palpitations during pregnancy
- Can make it difficult to get sufficient sleep during pregnancy
- Can exacerbate menopause symptoms, including hot flashes, sleeplessness, and vaginal dryness
- Interacts with some medications, including psychiatric and depression drugs, certain antibiotics and heartburn medications
- Linked to higher blood pressure, so women with hypertension should limit their intake
Certain women are more sensitive to caffeine than others, says Dr. Ghaderi. Some people can drink several cups of coffee and feel fine, she says, while others get jittery after one cup of tea. She generally advises patients to listen to their bodies and if they’re trying to cut back on the amount of caffeine they consume, to do so gradually.
Dr. Ghaderi explains that part of the difficulty in understanding the health benefits and risks associated with caffeine is that the delivery mechanism may matter. For example, she says, both coffee and tea contain caffeine but can affect our bodies differently. “…Additional research is needed to understand if an adverse response is due to the caffeine or another component of the coffee bean or tea leaf,” she adds.
Of course, if you’re breastfeeding, your caffeine intake affects not just you but your baby as well. Therefore, it’s advised to limit caffeine help prevent babies from becoming fussy or having difficulty sleeping, says Dr. Ghaderi.
Up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day seems to be safe for most healthy adults, she says. This is roughly the amount in four cups of brewed coffee. Remember to take other caffeinated beverages into account, like energy drinks or soft drinks, when calculating your daily caffeine consumption, Dr. Ghaderi advises.