CONSUMER'S GUIDE to CAFFEINE
Caffeine is America’s – if not the world’s – mind-altering substance of choice. Experts estimate that at least 80% of adult Americans have a bona fide pharmacological dependence on caffeine yet our caffeine-taking behavior suggests that most of us could be better-informed consumers of this rather remarkable natural-occurring stimulant.
What is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a chemical compound – a methylated xanthine (3, 7-dihydro-purine-2,6-dione), a purine base found in most bodily tissues and fluids in humans and other organisms. It acts as a central nervous system stimulant and has myriad other physiological effects.
Where is Caffeine Found?
Caffeine can be synthesized (usually from a urea base), but is naturally occurring and found in more than 60 different species of plants (primarily indigenous to South America and East Asia), most notably in coffee (“Coffea Arabica”, “Coffea robusta”, tea (“Camellia senensis”), and cacao (“Theobroma Cacao”) plants.
Why do Plants Contain Caffeine?
While caffeine stimulates the human central nervous system, it overwhelms that of plant-invasive insects. For decades we assumed that caffeine’s sole ‘adaptive utility’ to the plants that produced it (the characteristic of caffeine that promotes the reproductive success of these plants) was as an intrinsic organic pesticide. But in 2013, Geraldine Wright, a honeybee brain specialist at Newcastle University, reported findings that suggested that the naturally caffeine-laced nectar of certain plants actually serves to enhance the learning process of honeybees. As she explains it, “The plant is using this as a drug to change a pollinator’s behavior for its own benefit” Bees, it turns out, are significantly more likely to return to those plants that produce the drug-infused nectar. Just as honeybees repeatedly return to plants that produce caffeine-laced nectar, those of us who are chronic caffeine users make a beeline to our caffeine-supplier (a coffee shop or the store for an energy drink).
History of Caffeine
The use of caffeine-laced plant materials – chewing coffee beans, drinking tea leaf infusions and brews of crushed cacao – appears to have begun before recorded history.
Coffee: The National Coffee Association (U.S.A.) suggests that there is some truth to the legend that a goat herder of the Ethiopian highlands named Kaldi observed his goats becoming especially spirited and sleepless after nibbling on some berries from a tree. Kaldi reported this to the abbot of a local monastery who then brewed a drink from the berries and discovered that it helped him pray late into the night. This news spread to other monks and made it’s way Eastward to the Arabian Peninsula. Coffee is now grown in many countries in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, as well as in various Caribbean and Pacific Islands.
Tea: The drinking of infusions of tea leaf is thought to have originated in Southwest China during the Shang dynasty. According to a medical text written by Hua Tuo in the 3rd century AD, preparations of tea were used as medicine. Tea made it’s way to Europe via Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the 16th century. The popularity of drinking tea flourished in Britain during the 17th century and, consequently, the practice took root in the new world. Then, in an effort to compete with the Chinese monopoly on tea, the British initiated tea production and consumption in India.
Chocolate: The use of chocolate began in Mesoamerica. Ground fermented and roasted beans of Theobroma cacao were used by pre-Olmec people as early as 1900 B.C. The Aztecs believed that the God of wisdom, Quetzacoatl, bequeathed cacao to humans. Prepared as a bitter liquid drink mixed with spices, corn puree, and/or wine, cacao was believed to function as a strength tonic and aphrodisiac Cacao plant seeds were considered to be of such great value in Aztec culture that they were used as currency. Cacao made it’s way to North America and Europe, where it was prepared with sugar to counter its natural bitterness. Initially consumed only by the power elite, its use soon spread through all socioeconomic classes.
Identification of the Caffeine Molecule: Caffeine was isolated by Friedlieb Runge, a German analytical chemist. At a young age, Runge accidentally discovered the mydriatic (pupil-dilating) effects of belladonna alkaloids, a chemical compound found in deadly nightshade plants. In 1991, he demonstrated these effects to Goethe, and the famous poet presented him with a tin of coffee for experimental analysis. Within a few months, Runge identified the caffeine molecule. Caffeine synthesis is now a massive industry in several countries. Most of the synthesized caffeine utilized in the United States comes from factories in China and India.
Overview of Global Usage
Fifty-four percent of all caffeine use is attributable to coffee, 43% is attributable to tea, and approximately 3% is attributable to cacao. In 1981, total world-wide caffeine consumption was estimated to be about 70 mg/day for each inhabitant of the planet. The per capita rate of caffeine use in the United States and Canada accounts for three times that of the rest of the world as a whole, but only amounts to about half of heavy coffee-consuming countries such as Finland and Sweden. It’s estimated that more than 80% of the adult population of the United States consumes 100 mg/day or more of caffeine, enough to produce a physiological dependence.
Caffeine’s Physiological Effects on the Brain and Body
Caffeine has myriad physiological effects on the brain and body. There is currently a great deal of research interest in caffeine, largely due to recent discoveries of its effects on memory and athletic performance, so new information continues to emerge.
The primary psychological effect of caffeine is the result of the drugs action at adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a brain ‘neuromodulator’. When an adenosine molecule binds to its receptor, neural activity is dampened and sleepiness ensues. Adenosine also acts to dilate brain blood vessels, most likely to provide increased oxygenation of the brain during rest. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, thereby preventing adenosine from dampening neural activity and causing drowsiness. The end result is an increase in alertness and wakefulness.
Caffeine’s central nervous system stimulant effects also cause the pituitary gland to secrete releasing factors that stimulate the adrenal glands to increase adrenalin production. Adrenalin stimulates the sympathetic nervous system resulting in a ‘fight or flight’ response which, in turn, results in an increase in attentional focus and energy levels.
These effects can result in a physical dependency on caffeine and, therefore, withdrawal symptoms in the absence of the drug. These can include headaches, nausea, and sleepiness.
Caffeine also increases dopamine activity in the mesolimbic ‘reward circuits’ of the brain, and it is this action that promotes a tendency to seek out more caffeine.
Recently there has been significant research interest in caffeine’s effects on memory. While there are several recent studies demonstrating improvements in performance on memory tasks and memory consolidation, these effects are dose dependent and inappropriately high doses can actually yield opposite effects. [Caffeine may also mitigate the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease; see below.]
Psychological studies reveal that subjects taking caffeine report feeling more alert, self-confident, imaginative, better able to concentrate, and more willing to socialize. ("Caffeine: The Addiction We Share … and Don’t Talk About" Spirituality & Health Jan-Feb. 2015).
Caffeine acts as a ‘peripheral sympatho-mimetic’ on the body: it acts to stimulate the body’s sympathetic nervous system reaction. As a result, it can increase heart rate and constrict blood vessels.
Caffeine also prompts the body to burn more fat and fewer carbohydrates in the initial phases of a period of exertion. As a consequence, the body conserves glycogen – stored glucose – which remains available to the body and extends the length of time that the body can remain active. Caffeine consumption can result in an increased blood glucose levels (as such, it may be problematic for people with Type II Diabetes; see below).
An appropriate dose of caffeine – about 400 mgs – increases muscle cell permeability to calcium, sodium, and potassium. This, in turn, increases the strength of muscular contraction. (How Caffeine Boosts Athletic Performance).
Caffeine Health Pros and Cons
Caffeine consumption is associated with a number of health advantages and disadvantages.
Caffeine should be avoided by individuals with high blood pressure, diabetes, and osteoporosis, as well as those with insomnia and anxiety.
Regular caffeine use can lead to dependence and withdrawal symptoms can include headaches, cognitive fog, and fatigue.
Caffeine interacts poorly with some medications and should be avoided by individuals taking Cipro and Tagamet, as well as those taking Thyroid or psychiatric medications.
Health Warnings: Individuals who are under the age of 18, anyone with health issues or caffeine sensitivities, and women who are pregnant or nursing. Anyone taking medication or with a medical condition should check with their physician before taking caffeine or any drug.
Caffeine has been found to reduce the incidence of Parkinson’s Disease (de-caffeinated coffee doesn’t effect the incidence of PD).
Caffeine consumption is associated with lower risks of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In a 2009 University of Florida study, Individuals who consumed 3-5 cups of caffeinated coffee in their 40s and 50s had a 70% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia in their 70s. Additional studies suggest that caffeine improves cognitive processes.
A 2013 study at the Harvard School of Public Health revealed a 45% decrease in suicide rate in individuals who consumed 2-3 cups of caffeinated coffee.
In 2007, caffeine citrate was placed on the World Health Organizations Model List of essential medicines for its use in the treatment of apnea of prematurity.
Caffeine and Weight Loss: The Good News and the Bad News:
There is a popular conception that caffeine can help people to lose weight. In reality, consuming caffeine produces multiple physiological effects on the body, some of them increase the likelihood of losing weight, but others have the opposite effect (What's the Skinny on Caffeine and Weight Loss). A critical consideration in determining the likely effects of caffeine on weight – and health, in general – is the form in which we’re consuming it. Caffeine itself has a bitter taste, so people who get their caffeine in coffee and tea often add things to make it more palatable (sugar and cream, flavored syrups, etc.). Most energy drinks and sodas are loaded with calories, not to mention a host of additives that are unhealthy and unnecessary (How Many Calories Are in Your ‘Energy Boost’?).
Modern Caffeine Usage
Most of us don’t realize that much of caffeine consumed in the United States isn’t ‘naturally-occurring’; rather, most of the caffeine found in energy supplements, shots, pills, capsules, energy drinks, sodas, and even food is synthesized. (Caffeine from the Bean. Extracted vs. Synthetic Caffeine). Beyond the debate between natural vs. synthetic forms of a chemical compound, virtually all of the synthesized caffeine used in this country is purchased from factories in China and India that are far afield from our government regulatory agencies.
In addition to being synthesized in these largely unregulated offshore factories, the caffeine used in most ‘stay alert’ and ‘energy’ pills and capsules usually comes with a dose of dyes, fillers, excipients, and/or waxes. Even caffeine from natural sources can carry unwanted toxic chemical residues. Unless we specifically seek out organic varieties, the coffees and even teas we’re drinking probably contain toxic pesticides
Caffeine Delivery Systems
For millennia humans have consumed caffeine in unprocessed or minimally-processed natural forms – by chewing coffee and cocoa beans (which are really seeds) or tea leaves, or by preparing and drinking brews made from simple infusions of these plant parts (contemporarily, even in industrialized countries, we still consume coffee beans, though most usually when they’re covered in chocolate). Since the dawn of the 20th century we’ve consumed caffeine in sodas. But with the advent of commercial caffeine extraction and synthesis, the stimulant has been incorporated into a vast range of consumer products. From the early days of over-the-counter pills such as No-Doze and Vivarin, the commercial caffeine industry has expanded enormously and the product range has broadened to include energy drinks, gels, various types of pills and capsules, many of which contain multiple additives. A dose of caffeine can also be obtained from specialty gums, strips, skin sprays, nasal sprays, inhalers, lip balms, soap, and e-cigarette caffeine delivery systems. Caffeine is also added to various foodstuffs – cookies, chips, and even Cracker Jack (“Cracker Jacked”). A primary consideration in using any Caffeine Delivery System is dose-accuracy (http://spiritualityhealth.com/articles/caffeine-addiction-we-share) and the nature of the vehicle solutions/compounds in which the caffeine is delivered (many contain sugar, dairy, additives, fillers, dyes, other stimulants, vitamins of questionable source, etc.).
Safety Concerns: Purity & Dose
Caffeine – even when it’s extracted from a natural source and free of pesticides and additives – is a serious substance, and should be treated as such. According to the FDA and other respected health authorities, taking up to 400 mg of caffeine a day is generally regarded as safe for most healthy adults. It should be completely avoided by anyone with a caffeine sensitivity, health problem, women who are pregnant or nursing, and anyone under the age of 18 (Is Caffeine Safe?). Consuming a high-dose of caffeine can lead to serious health concerns and even death. In recent years, there have been two reported deaths as a result of overdoses of pure bulk caffeine. It’s important to note that the purity of the caffeine isn’t the issue, accurate dosing is the problem. A deceptively small amount of bulk caffeine can constitute a dangerously high dose.
While taking caffeine in the form of coffee seems like a safe way to get a reasonably accurate dose of caffeine, the amount of caffeine in the same-order of take out coffee (made from the same stock, by the same barista, in the same machine) can vary wildly from order to order – 126% variability in one University of South Florida study. That means that a single serving can provide you with 150 mg. less than the recommended daily dose, or 164 mg more than the recommended dose. And a recent Harvard Medical School study found there to be grave inaccuracies in the dose information provided by the manufacturers of 20 different over-the counter pills and capsules (How Much Caffeine Are You Taking? Why You Probably Don’t Know) also, see below.
Caffeine Dependence, Denial, and Clarity
We have a tendency to romanticize our use of caffeine. We ‘love’ our morning coffee, associate caffeinated sodas with fun activities and global harmony, celebrate with chocolates. But the reality is that most of us are physiologically dependent upon caffeine and don’t have a clue about our daily dose of this powerful stimulant.
Murray Carpenter, an investigative journalist and the author of Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, conservatively estimates that more than 80 percent of Americans are consuming caffeine in excess of 100 mg/day, and the Federal Drug Administration’s estimates are even higher. A 2010 FDA report suggests that approximately 90 percent of us are using caffeine on a daily basis, and at a dose of more than 200 mg. These estimates are based on self-report and may be even higher. This is because about 54 percent of users are getting caffeine in the form of coffee or tea, and the caffeine content of these products varies widely across types and brewing methods. Even in circumstances when it might seem reasonable to assume some degree of dose consistency, as when the same volume of the same type of coffee bean or tea leaf has been brewed in precisely the same manner, the caffeine yield of the beverage can vary widely as a result of inherent plant variability. An excellent case in point comes from a University of South Florida study in which a 16-ounce cup of “Breakfast Blend” coffee was purchased from the same Starbucks location every day for six consecutive days and then assessed for drug content. The same serving of the same beverage from the same store varied from 250 mg to 564 mg. This suggests that a loyal customer’s “regular” daily dose of caffeine is anything but “regular” and could, in fact, be twice as much one day than the next. Such variation can significantly affect how we feel, how we think, and how we function, and yet we often have no way of knowing how much we consume. Most of us don’t even think to ask the question.
The dose range for regular users of over-the-counter “energy” products, such as pills, capsules, and energy drinks, is equally variable because the assessed doses often fail to fall within 20 percent variance of the dose noted on the label. In a recent study, Pieter Cohen, MD, and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School assessed the drug content of caffeine-based energy products that were purchased in the PXs of various U.S. military bases. They found that only nine out of 20 such products were found to have accurate dose labeling—and these are the same products that are available at convenience and “nutrition” stores across the country. So while these products offer the consumer the illusion of accurate dosing, it is, in fact, an illusion.
There are sounds reasons why we tend to ignore and/or deny the fact that we have a dependence on caffeine (and other drugs, such as alcohol). While there are reasonable arguments to made for the use of caffeine, it’s a good idea to gain some clarity around the doses we are consuming, and the source and purity of the caffeine we are taking.
Clean, Precise, Effective Caffeine Consumption: What’s a Caffeine Aficionado to Do?
There are many reasons why those individuals who choose to use caffeine might benefit from using a clean, well-measured source of caffeine such as GOD’S SPEED®. Our products have no fillers, dyes, or additives, no calories, no cafestol (the chemical in coffee that can raise cholesterol levels. And with GOD’S SPEED®, you know your dose – which we’re finding can determine whether caffeine is likely to yield beneficial effects, no effects, or detrimental effects.
GOD’S SPEED® PURE Caffeine is a 200 mg serving of pharmaceutical-grade caffeine extracted from the bean, and provide you with an accurate dose in vegetarian capsule. If you’re a very regular caffeine user, we recommend trying ALPHA Caffeine™ – 200 mg of our high-quality caffeine with 500 mg of L-Tyrosine in each serving to ensure that your brain has a ready supply of this amino acid building block with which to build relevant neurotransmitters. And if you’re especially interested in enhancing mental focus and a sense of well-being, we recommend trying CALM Caffeine™ -- 200 mg of our high-quality caffeine with 200 mg. of the amino acid L-Theanine.
This GOD’S SPEED® Consumer's Guide to Caffeine is meant to be a perpetually-evolving information overview. We hope that you’ll check in from time to time to learn what’s new and invite you to contact the GOD’S SPEED® team with your questions – or information you’d like us to share with others.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock