It Might Be Worth Shrinking Your Coffee Habit

There’s no denying the fact that caffeine is an addictive drug. Maybe you’ve experienced that morning coffee craving right when your feet hit the ground, before your cortisol levels spike to give your morning that much-needed jumpstart. Caffeine, in most cases coffee, is the substance that fuels the go, go, go lifestyle and sleep-deprived culture in America. College and graduate students especially exploit the quick boost of energy provided by that cup of Joe or two or three—especially if an all-nighter is in the agenda. In fact, caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some form of caffeine is consumed by approximately 80 percent of American adults every day. There are a plethora of benefits that caffeine bestows; however, as with almost everything, moderation is crucial.

Throughout my undergraduate premedical career, I noticed instances where I allowed myself to overindulge in coffee to keep up with the incessant workload. I know I’m not alone. Double and sometimes even triple exam weeks called for all day and occasionally all night (I only pulled one all-nighter which is an understated shock to most) cram sessions. I typically consumed 4-5 cups of coffee a day, trying to avoid that dreaded caffeine crash until I reached a comfortable stopping place in my studies. Yes, the stimulating effects of caffeine did increase cognitive alertness and relieve drowsiness; however, I also experienced symptoms such as restlessness, headaches, rapid heartbeat, and even gastrointestinal issues. All of which made it almost impossible to get restorative sleep for my brain to consolidate and store all of the information I had just learned. Sorry ladies and gentlemen, even if it has worked for you thus far, cramming the night before is not the answer.

Some days, I may have crossed the line of what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) calls “coffee intoxication” or the adverse effects of consuming five or more cups of coffee. I did notice increased anxiety, something of which I already struggled with without caffeine. For a solid three years (sophomore year Organic Chemistry being the real killer), it seemed as if I could never hit the pause button. I did not have a caffeine dependence; so once I decided to slow down, listen to my body, and better manage my time to get at least eight hours of shuteye, it wasn’t difficult to reduce my coffee craving and limit my caffeine consumption.

So how exactly does caffeine enhance alertness, energy, and even feelings of well-being? Due to its structural similarity to a neuromodulator called adenosine, caffeine can bind to adenosine-specific receptors in the brain and consequently inhibit its sleep-promoting effects. In addition, this physiological mechanism allows dopamine—the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter responsible for motivation, enthusiasm, and pleasure— to release. Some studies are investigating the long-term effects of regular caffeine intake, including but not limited to a reduced risk of depression, suicide, cognitive decline, and memory disorders. In fact, there is speculation that the adenosine receptors I mentioned earlier could be a major factor in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease progression. But, alas, that which glitters is not always gold. Restlessness, insomnia, anxiety, agitation, and addiction are some of the downsides of consuming excessive amounts of caffeine, specifically greater than the FDA-approved daily dose of 400 milligrams (about three to four cups of home-brewed coffee). Furthermore, caffeine overconsumption interferes with calcium absorption in bones and may increase your risk of osteoporosis. As can be implied, when it comes to consuming caffeine and expecting a health benefit, moderation is the key.

Three months ago, I did away with my coffee habit and instead began drinking tea every morning. To give you an idea, black tea has anywhere between 25-48 mg of caffeine, green tea contains about 25-29 mg, and coffee tops the list with 95-165 mg. After making this lifestyle change, I immediately noticed my anxiety and digestive issues were subdued. I also observed longer lasting, less jittery energy without experiencing a caffeine crash. Most importantly, the quality and length of my sleep was drastically improved. I’m not saying you have to completely eliminate coffee from your diet; but if you want to prioritize your health, consider re-evaluating your daily caffeine intake (even as much as six hours before catching some z’s).

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Elizabeth Arruda

Is a contributor to The Almost Doctor’s Channel.

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