The Confusing ‘Truth’ About Caffeine  

Caffeine is one of the most popular mind altering drugs countering physical fatigue and increasing alertness. Caffeine is a wake promoting therapeutic. This is theorized to be due to the drugs interference with adenosine, a chemical in the body that acts like a natural sleeping pill. Caffeine blocks the hypnotic effect of adenosine and keeps us from falling asleep. Caffeine stimulates adrenalin and thermogenisis (production of heat via cellular respiration in the muscles)

Caffeine is an alkaloid that occurs in the leaves, seeds and fruit of tea, coffee, cacao, kola trees and more than sixty other plants. Example levels of caffeine in foods: dark choc 50gm has 38mg, tea 50mg, espresso 100ml or instant 1 tsp 80mg. Besides caffeine there are substantial amounts of magnesium, niacin, potassium, and even such antioxidants as vitamin E in coffee (best fresh ground not instant).

Caffeine’s heavy users are night clubbers, marathon runners, mountain bikers, fighter pilots, school and uni crammers and late night truckers. It is the only habit forming psychoactive drug we routinely serve our children (in soft drinks and chocolate). In fact most babies in the developed world enter the universe with traces of caffeine in their bodies, a transfer through the umbilical cord.

Caffeine’s pervasiveness is a cause for concern among scientists and public health advocates.

Conflicting studies show caffeine acutely decreases insulin sensitivity and elevates blood pressure and cholesterol levels, but over long term reduces the risk of diabetes, especially at large doses (6 cups per day). It is possible this result is due the appetite suppressing effect of caffeine leading to less calories consumed, with less sleep and an increased metabolic rate.

Drinking coffee may interfere with your body's ability to keep homocysteine and cholesterol levels in check, most likely by inhibiting the action of the vitamins folate, B12 or B6. Drinking three cups of coffee a day could increase the risk of thromboembolic stroke in older men who have high blood pressure. Caffeine leads to a loss of aortic elasticity, and raised blood pressure. Drinking six cups of coffee was significantly associated with an increase in total cholesterol, LDL ("bad") cholesterol and triglycerides, but not HDL ("good") cholesterol levels.

Over time population studies have shown that people who consume caffeine have higher rates of kidney and bladder cancer, fibrocystic breast disease, pancreatic cancer and osteoporosis. Pesticides in coffee are associated with cancers, miscarriage and Parkinson’s disease.

Caffeine does not appear to have any greater diuretic effect than the same amount of water. Increased urinary frequency experienced by some caffeine comsumers may be due to the action of adrenalin. Caffeine is absorbed 100% from the gut – being a marker used to measure drug clearance, therefore will compete with the nutrients in your meal or multivitamin. Caffeine also stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) depressing the digestive secretions and movements, leading to poor digestion and possible anxiety, panic attacks and tension. The drink of coffee also tastes bitter which can act as a digestive stimulant.

Farming techniques for coffee include the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer and the leading coffee growing country in the world is Vietnam, possibly still contaminated with chemicals from the war.

Risk of caffeine in pregnancy

Caffeine is a stimulant drug that easily passes through the placenta to the developing fetus and is also transferred through breast milk. Again conflictingly some studies have shown no adverse effects from 3 cups or less a day of coffee in pregnancy while other have shown that drinking more than 300 mg of coffee daily, or the equivalent of three ½ cups, may increase the risk of miscarriage, birth defects such as cleft palate and low birth weight,

Preliminary studies also suggest that drinking four cups of coffee or more per day may put the infant at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Caffeine may also make it more difficult for women to maintain necessary levels of iron and calcium, which are especially important during pregnancy. The more nutritionally deficient the mother the more impact the caffeine will have robbing her and the baby of vital nutrients.

During pregnancy and in infants the half-life of caffeine is increased, which means that it will stay in your body, and your infant’s body, longer. Moreover, fetuses have no ability to detoxify caffeine.

It also appears that coffee consumption is associated with increased estrogen levels, which means an increased risk of breast and endometrial cancer.

Coffee also has the issue of pesticide contamination, which is particularly harmful during pregnancy.

How to consume most safely

  • Smaller more frequent doses rather than big am hit
  • Filtering removes some the terpenoids which are associated with the rise in cholesterol, rheumatoid arthritis
  • Drink fair trade organic coffee
  • Avoid bleached filter papers
  • "Swiss Water Process" decaf - If you are going to drink decaffeinated coffee, be sure that it is one that uses a non-chemical based method of decaffeination. The "Swiss Water Process" is a patented method and is the best choice. Most of the major brands are chemically decaffeinated, even if it says "Naturally Decaffeinated" right on the container.
  • Avoid if prone to anxiety and anxiety attacks, miscarriage, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol or homocysteine.
  • Cut down gradually rather than cold turkey to reduce withdrawal headache
  • Do not talk vitamin and mineral supplements with caffeine as they compete for absorption.
  • Drink less than 3 coffees per day
  • Avoid /limit in pregnancy
  • If you regularly get a large dose of caffeine (more than 3 cups of coffee) you need it for your brain to function normally. So when you stop using you suffer form poor activity in the visual and auditory activity in the brain - fuzziheadedness and rebound headache as your body continues to counter balance the effect of caffeine (the adaptation that stopped coffee from elevating blood pressure with regular use).

Samantha Warner Naturopath

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