Dear Dr. B: I have been using caffeine pills to stay awake and study for my exams. Is it a bad thing to do that?

Answer: Caffeine is a drug. It is naturally produced in the leaves and seeds of many plants such as tea leaves and coffee beans. It stimulates the nervous system to cause alertness. It makes the heart beat faster. Some people experience a temporary increase in energy and elevation in mood. It is bitter in taste but the processing of the drinks can hide the bitter taste. It’s also produced artificially and added to certain foods.

It is almost impossible to spend a day without consuming caffeine in some form or the other. Caffeine is in sodas, coffee-flavoured yogurt, coffee ice-cream, chocolate candy or iced tea. Many pain killers and over-the-counter medications have caffeine. Even decaffeinated coffee has some caffeine. Many energy drinks are loaded with caffeine to give a temporary boost to a person’s energy level.

Most teenagers get their caffeine through soft drinks which can also have added sugar and artificial flavors. Sixty eight per cent of Americans say they are hooked on coffee. Caffeine abuse by young people alarms some experts. In one study, researchers from Northwestern University in Chicago tracked calls to the Illinois Poison Center in Chicago for three years and they found that more than 250 cases of medical complications occurred from ingesting caffeine supplements and that 12 per cent of the callers had to be hospitalized. The average age of the callers was 21.

Besides boosting memory and improving concentration, caffeine can lower the risks of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, liver cancer, type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. It does not significantly increase the risk of heart disease or cancer.

On the other hand, caffeine does cause dependence and trying to go without caffeine may cause withdrawal symptoms. Once you get hooked on caffeine then you need more and more caffeine to feel the same effect. Too much caffeine can raise blood pressure and blood sugar level, decrease the bone density and cause muscle soreness because the body loses calcium and potassium and recovery time after exercise is delayed. Caffeine has a mild diuretic effect (increase need to urinate) which can cause dehydration. Caffeine increases irritability and anger.

Too much caffeine will cause insomnia, tremors, nausea, vomiting, chest pains and palpitations. Caffeine is not stored in the body and it is excreted through the kidneys. In some individual the after effects of caffeine may last up to six hours.

How much is too much caffeine?

This is difficult to define as individual sensitivity to caffeine can vary a lot. A cup of coffee or tea can keep one person awake whole night while it may not have any effect on a second individual. Some experts say that people should consume no more than about 100 milligrams of caffeine daily. That equals to one espresso which contains about 100 milligrams of caffeine.

Other examples of caffeine contents of common drinks are:

-Coca-Cola 355 ml. has 34 mg. of caffeine
-Diet Coke 355 ml. has 45 mg. of caffeine
-Pepsi 355ml. has 38 mg. of caffeine
-7-Up 355 ml. has no caffeine
-Iced tea 355 ml. has 70 mg. of caffeine
-Brewed coffee 150 ml. has approximately 115 mg of caffeine

Depending on your sensitive and tolerance level, caffeine in small amounts and in moderation may not hurt you. You have to know your limit. Personally, I don’t see the need for taking caffeine to stay awake and study. In my life time I have been through many exams and I didn’t have to rely on caffeine to get results. I believe in power naps. If you are sleepy then your body is asking you to rest. Take a nap instead of drugging yourself with caffeine.

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