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Do you depend on caffeine? Then read this now - for the sake of your health!

by , 15 February 2016

I've had a love/hate relationship with caffeine for the better part of the last five years. A short time frame, no doubt, compared to the more “devoted” coffee drinkers among us. But in that time, I've learned quite a bit about the compound known as 1,3,7 trimethylxanthine - and it's not all that pretty.

In fact, this compound is the very reason I recently decided to replace my daily cups of coffee with cups of green tea. Want to find out why? Then best you keep reading.

Caffeine isn’t just an addictive drug…

In the grand continuum of drugs, caffeine is mild – and with good reason. Compared to the effects of drugs like ecstasy or cocaine, caffeine affects your brain in much less severe ways.
 
Which is why it might come as a surprise that caffeine isn’t just an addictive drug – it’s also a model drug of dependence…
 
Few of you may think that the contents of your coffee mugs as being equal to a pill or a powder. But in essence, that’s what all of you caffeine addicts are consuming every day.
 
Whether you get your caffeine via coffee, energy drinks or tea, it retains the same effects. Now let me explain exactly what caffeine does to your body as well as the consequences of caffeine dependence…
 

This is your body on caffeine

More than 75 plants produce caffeine, which they utilise as a pesticide. Humans have demonstrated a very low, tolerable upper intake level – in other words, we aren’t adapted to high levels of caffeine consumption.
 
But since we’re talking about what is essentially a pesticide, perhaps this doesn’t come as a surprise…
 
Caffeine is a member of both the alkaloid family (along with morphine, nicotine, codeine and so on) and the xanthine family, which most stimulants derive from. Upon human ingestion, caffeine binds to adenosine receptors. 
 
Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that slows activity in the central nervous system. When caffeine inhibits it, you feel less tired (which explains why caffeine is so appealing to those of you who are sleep deprived) and your neurons fire faster. Essentially our body thinks that some kind of emergency is happening, and it floods itself with dopamine, epinephrine, cortisol, and acetylcholine.
 
Caffeine also tightens your muscles, dilates your pupils, opens your airways, increases your pulse rate, and constricts your blood vessels. This last effect is the reason why caffeine is sometimes included in pain relief medication, because less blood flow to the affected area equals less perceived pain. Because of its biochemistry, scientists consider caffeine an addictive substance.
 

The health and addiction risks associated with caffeine

Now officially classified as a disorder, caffeine dependence is real – and it’s ugly. Anyone who’s missed their morning cup of coffee surely knows this. Whether you drink caffeine in large amounts or small, its consumption correlates to age-related diseases like osteoporosis and premature ageing syndromes. This is largely due to its ability to shorten telomeres (the ends of human chromosomes).
 
Cellular ageing also means early wrinkles, grey hair and hair loss – yikes! Perhaps paradoxically, one study suggests that caffeine consumption might help you live longer, while another found that it can boost your memory.
 
But caffeine has particularly negative effects when it comes to getting high-quality z’s. You’ve probably heard that it’s not good to drink coffee in the afternoon, because doing so can affect your sleep that evening. This results from the fact that caffeine’s half-life (or the amount of time it takes for half of the substance to be metabolised by the body) is roughly six hours.
 
In other words, at 10pm, some of your 2pm coffee will still be floating around in your bloodstream. And that can prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep, resulting in tiredness the next day.
 
Caffeine can also disrupt your normal sleeping patterns, meaning the sleep you get isn’t as restful. The consequences of insufficient sleep include an increased likelihood to overheat, impaired cognitive performance and endocrine disruption.
 
Caffeine withdrawal, as anyone who’s gone through it will tell you, is by no means a fun experience. While the withdrawal period is most known for causing headaches, it can also include unpleasant symptoms like brain fog, lethargy, negative mood, sleepiness, depression and vomiting. The good news, though, is that in the long term there are no known ill health effects of caffeine withdrawal. However, there’s no solace to someone experiencing it.
 

The takeaway: Give caffeine up entirely or consume it in the healthiest way possible

So what’s the healthiest way to consume caffeine? If you can’t give it up entirely, one study suggests consuming it in small amounts (roughly 100 mg to 200 mg, or approximately one to two cups) immediately prior to exercise might be beneficial for growth hormone production.
 
Consuming caffeine via green tea is also a healthier option, and the one I opted for as I explained in my intro. Green tea contains healthful compounds like antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate and the amino acide L-theanine. Even coffee boasts some impressive health benefits, provided you consume it in moderation.
 
That said, if you’re drinking two or more cups a day, it’s probably a wise idea to gradually decrease your consumption. Cut back over a period of a few weeks to avoid the nasty withdrawal symptoms described above. If you stay within the lower end of the spectrum of caffeine intake, you’ll help yourself to minimise most of the deleterious effects of addiction.
 
Biochemically, caffeine is an addictive compound with several potential negative effects, though you can mitigate many of them by consuming caffeine only in moderation and from healthier sources like tea or even chocolate. 
 
The trouble arises when you use large amounts of caffeine to cope with chronic sleep deprivation. And unfortunately, it seems both habits have become as South African as rooibos tea. We’re a country low on energy, low on sleep, and, as a result, high on caffeine!

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