Caffeine: The Workplace Drug of Choice

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Caffeine is the world’s most popular stimulant. It even has its own academic research journal, the Journal of Caffeine Research. It’s become so pervasive many people don’t even know how much caffeine they consume on a daily basis. Do a scholar.google.com search and it’ll take you 0.04 seconds to find about 814,000 scholarly results for caffeine.

The Popularity of Caffeine

It seems our desire to read and learn about caffeine is only quenched by our appetite for actual caffeine. And it’s seemingly abundant. There is caffeine in our coffee,  sodas, and energy drinks. We have caffeine in chewing gum, and powder-filled caffeine capsules. There are even caffeine infused bath bars and body crèmes. Consumer Reports did a review of energy drinks to craft a comparison sheet of cost, calories, sugars, and caffeine in 27 different energy drinks. Even Lebron James is in on the action as a cofounder and advertising spokesman for Sheets, a dissolvable energy strip company. Nevertheless, not all caffeine use is bad; it has legitimate medicinal uses.

Legitimate Uses for Caffeine

Caffeine has a lesser known side, the side that helps preterm babies. When a premature baby is born, neonatal apnea is a concern. (Apnea is the temporary cessation of breathing, especially during sleep.)  In pediatric intensive care units, caffeine is among the most commonly prescribed medications because it reduces the frequency of apnea, stabilizes oxygen levels in the blood, and helps when  removing breathing tubes from tiny bodies. Caffeine can also provide some relief in the form of pain control.

Benefits of Using Caffeine

In adults, caffeine has many beneficial effects. It increases energy, decreases fatigue, enhances physical, motor, and cognitive performance, increases alertness, wakefulness, and feelings of energy, and decreases mental fatigue. It also increases one’s ability to concentrate and focus attention, and increases ability to solve problems requiring reasoning. But for some people with underlying conditions, caffeine can have negative effects.

Drawbacks of Using Caffeine

Caffeine use can create anxiety, so if you have generalized anxiety or heightened feelings of worry or fear, caffeine can increase  those feelings. Caffeine can also trigger an anxiety attack. When dosed with caffeine, people with panic disorders experienced significantly greater increases in anxiety, nervousness, fear, nausea, palpitations, restlessness, and body tremors. If you take benzodiazepines as a treatment for anxiety or panic, caffeine can interfere with those mood stabilizers. And caffeine hasn’t been studied on pregnant women, so it’s best to limit consumption if you’re pregnant. 

Caffeine Dosage Amounts

Sure, genetics are a factor; some people simply metabolize caffeine faster. And if you’re 140 pounds, a typical energy drink is likely to affect you more than a 240 pound person. So your specific circumstances matter. To be sure, if you’re someone who’s never really had caffeine, there’s no reason to start consuming this  stimulant. Well-rested people function just fine without it. But if you’re accustomed consuming caffeine, and simply thinking about going caffeine-free causes you to chortle at the ridiculousness of the thought, you might have a level of caffeine dependence. And that caffeine dependence might not be entirely your fault.

Hidden Sources of Caffeine

The FDA requires companies to declare ingredients, and food additives like caffeine, in beverages. Because of those requirements, you’ll find caffeine listed on products like Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, and Red Bull. Even Diet Sunkist Orange has caffeine added to it. What about hidden sources of caffeine? The label on Starbucks Doubleshot Fortified Coffee Drink – Vanilla Flavour won’t list caffeine because it’s a natural ingredient in coffee instead of an additive. But did you see what else is included in the list of added ingredients? Guarana, a hidden source of caffeine.

Guarana is found in many coffee drinks, energy drinks, and protein bars. So what is it? Found in the seeds of a tropical vine native to Brazil, Venezuela, and Uruguay, Guarana contains high levels of caffeine, just like coffee beans. Which means if what you’re drinking contains caffeine and guarana you maybe getting a double dose of caffeine. That makes calculating your daily dose of caffeine difficult, can lead to caffeine overdose, or leave you with unexpected withdrawals when you don’t maintain certain caffeine levels.

Caffeine Withdrawals

Withdrawal symptoms from caffeine are  different for different people. If we think of caffeine as a stimulant, an upper, withdrawal symptoms will feel like a downer. Depending on the amount of caffeine and your personal tolerance level, mild withdrawal symptoms can include headache, generalized fatigue, decreased energy, increased drowsiness, and a depressed mood. Severe withdrawal symptoms include fatigue, nausea, and flu-like symptoms. Physical withdrawal symptoms can last for a couple of days.

The psychological withdrawals from your caffeine-inspired pick me up can last longer. So what does withdrawal look like in the real world? What would happen if you took caffeine dependent individuals and removed their sources of caffeine? Dr. Roland Griffiths and Dr. Eric Strain of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine did just that.

Studying Caffeine Dependence

Of the 11 people  treated for their American Medical Association journal article, Caffeine Dependence Syndrome, they found, “One person who had a manufacturing job made costly errors. Another could not bring herself to go to work. Another spent the afternoon in a dark office with her head on her desk. One woman called off her child's birthday party. Most went to bed early.”

Dr. Griffiths continued, “One pregnant woman in the study who had avoided caffeine during her pregnancy, recalled going into labor and asking her husband to stock up on caffeinated soda so she could have it when she got home from the hospital. When he refused, she went to the store herself while in labor to buy the sodas.” Clearly, caffeine use has legitimate drawbacks, including withdrawal and how it affects other health problems.

Caffeine's Effect on Other Health Problems

Because caffeine is infused into society through many consumable products, we might overlook it when we have a medical problem. “For instance, say I go to the doctor seeking treatment for insomnia. Even though there might be a link between my sleeping patterns and my caffeine use, I am likely to blame stress or some other factor when the doctor asks me what's going on. Because coffee is such a widely accepted part of our daily lives, I might not even think it's important to tell my doctor that I'm visiting him today in between three trips to Starbucks,” writes Brandon Ambrosino from Johns Hopkins University.

Additionally, “…avoidance of caffeine withdrawal symptoms motivates regular use of caffeine. The satisfying feelings and perceived benefits that many caffeine users experience appear to be a simple reversal of the negative effects of caffeine withdrawal after overnight abstinence.” 

How to Survive Without Caffeine

Switching to a caffeine-free lifestyle is relatively easy, if you want to do it, but the first week is going take some getting used to. Depending on your particular variables, e.g. genetic makeup, weight, current dosage levels, it can take days for caffeine to totally leave your system. According to toxicologist Bruce Goldberger, the typical half-life (the time required for any specified property (e.g., the concentration of a substance in the body) to decrease by half) of caffeine is probably about five hours, which means it typically stays in the body for about 10 hours. And it can take up to five half-lives to rid the body completely of a drug. So you’re looking at a few days for the physical effects of caffeine to leave your system. The psychological effects can take a bit longer.

Psychological withdrawal symptoms and cravings for caffeine can persist. That’s totally normal. If you expect a jolt of caffeine shortly after you wake up, not getting that accustomed jolt is going to feel different;maybe even weird. Resetting your body to a natural state will help you stabilize your normal biometric rhythms, so the next time you have a cup of coffee or an energy drink you’ll be more likely to notice their effects on your body.

Tips for Quitting Caffeine, If You Really, Really, REALLY Want To

  • Get Plenty of Rest. Consider getting enough rest so your body can naturally wake up without the use of an alarm. That usually means eight solid hours of uninterrupted, restful sleep. When you’re well rested, you won’t need a caffeine jolt to help you feel ready for the day. You’ll simply feel ready for the day.
  • Monitor Your Caffeine Intake. How much caffeine do you get in a normal day? Are weekends the same as weekdays? Knowing how much caffeine you’re dosing yourself with can help you know how best to adjust your caffeine intake. And remember, not all caffeine is listed on ingredient panels, so you may be getting more caffeine than you think.
  • Lower Your Caffeine Intake Gradually. If you drink coffee throughout the day, consider switching to decaf in the afternoons. If you drink energy drinks, try a no-energy-drinks-after-3:00-p.m. policy. Try switching to caffeine-free herbal teas as a replacement, or have a glass of water after every caffeinated drink. You’ll find yourself hydrating better, and water is the best drinking habit you can have.