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Set ‘Em Up, Joe

By Lavender May 8, 2009

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Coffee…tea…soda…energy drinks…diet pills…chocolate…and now even gum, lip balm, soap, shampoo, and beer! These products all contain the world’s favorite drug: caffeine. It is a psychoactive central nervous system (CNS) stimulant, and it just happens to be the drug of choice for about 90 percent of Americans every single day. Whether it’s used for a morning pick-me-up, an afternoon rejuvenation, or an evening jolt, caffeine addicts and other regular consumers cannot function without the stuff.
Caffeine consumption is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Stone Age humans obtained caffeine by chewing on the bark and leaves of caffeinated plants. Fortunately, we have the options of a Starbuck’s around every corner and espresso machines.

Considering the extent of caffeine consumption and use throughout all of history, it always baffles me that its long-term health effects are largely unknown. Thousands of research studies have investigated caffeine’s physiological effects on the human body, often with conflicting results.

However, the most recent evidence using better study designs suggests that regular caffeine consumption yields numerous health benefits beyond its well-known stimulant properties. Before delving into the benefits of going from “tired” to “wired.” grab yourself a cup of coffee, take a seat, and read on. Your caffeine habit may not be as harmful as you think.

First of all, caffeine consumption leads to CNS stimulation, ultimately increasing alertness, focus, and capacity for learning and memory formation. Most college students and late-night workers are well-aware of these effects.
Another benefit of this stimulation is an ergogenic (i.e., work-promoting) effect. In other words, a person is able to exercise harder and longer (without feeling like he or she is giving extra effort) than if he or she exercised without caffeine.

In addition, caffeine causes fat tissues to release fatty acids into the bloodstream. These fatty acids are available to muscle tissues during exercise, which use them for energy. Thus, caffeine increases the use of fat for energy, which significantly may benefit endurance performance, and “whittle your middle.” This is one reason why collegiate athletics test for excessive caffeine levels in the bloodstream prior to large events.

Caffeine historically has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease. However, no solid evidence has been provided to back up this association. More recent evidence suggests that caffeine consumption has no effect on heart disease. One Harvard study found no increased risk of heart disease with daily consumption of six or more cups of coffee. Furthermore, similar studies have shown that daily consumption of four or more cups of coffee decreases by half one’s risk of heart disease compared to those who refuse to take a sip. One caveat is that people who have high blood pressure may need to monitor their caffeine intake more closely.

Beyond just stimulant properties and heart benefits, caffeine consumption also may help ward off diabetes. It appears that caffeine both helps improve insulin sensitivity (which is impaired in diabetes), and promotes proper functioning of pancreatic beta cells (which are responsible for secreting insulin). One Harvard study found a 50 percent reduction in diabetes risk with consumption of five or more cups of coffee each day.

Finally, caffeine consumption may provide protection against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, although research is still somewhat unclear in this area. Caffeine may improve dopamine-producing cell function, which often is impaired in Parkinson’s disease. Caffeine’s beneficial effects on Alzheimer’s development seem to be a reduction in beta-amyloid plaque formation in the brain, a telltale sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

With potential benefits come potential risks. Studies show that four or more cups of coffee a day may increase the risk of miscarriage in pregnant women, although data is still inconclusive in this area. Furthermore, caffeine increases acid secretion in the stomach, possibly leading to augmented ulcer development, esophagitis, and heartburn. Excessive caffeine consumption also can lead to caffeine intoxication (i.e., caffeine jitters), anxiety, and sleep disturbances.

Although research is still ongoing, it appears that caffeine addicts may be doing more for their health than nonconsumers. However, we all individually must weigh the purported benefits against potential risks. In my mind, moderation is the key. As always, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Even broccoli would give us cancer if consumed in excess.

I recommend a reasonable amount of consumption at up to six cups of coffee and/or tea each day. Personally, I do not know if I would survive without my morning cup of joe. It is actually more like a pot of joe, but who’s counting? After doing my research, I certainly am not, and maybe you should not, either. But that decision is ultimately up to you.

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