Caffeine – The Socially Accepted Killer

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Caffeine and nicotine are two legal and socially domesticated drugs only because they are less toxic when taken in standard quantities. The negative health effects of nicotine and its addictiveness are common knowledge. So why are we so reluctant to show caffeine in the same dim light?

Caffeine and nicotine

Caffeine is present in many foods and drugs — in coffee, tea, energy and soft drinks, candy bars, and over-the-counter cold remedies and analgesics. It is consumed daily by approximately 80% of the world’s population. Small doses of caffeine increase alertness, but there are serious health risks from consuming large quantities and from the long term use of caffeine.

It’s common knowledge that small doses of caffeine increase alertness, buy why aren’t the negative effects of caffeine common knowledge? Smokers wishing to quit have specific treatment programs and therapeutic drugs available that are often covered by insurance. Warning labels are on every pack of cigarettes. Smoking is now a recognized cause of cancer, lung disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke. Nicotine dependence causes more death and disability than all other drug disorders combined (Ogawa & Ueki, 2007, p. 267). Where are the warnings labels about the health risks from consuming large quantities and long-term use of caffeine?

Current research on the effects of caffeine

A study on the long-term effects of caffeine with responses from nearly 6000 people found that caffeine intake was positively associated with higher levels of depressed mood, anxiety and stress (Rogers, Heatherly, & Mullings, 2006).

Recent evidence suggests that little or no acute benefit is gained from regular caffeine consumption because the withdrawal of caffeine, for example overnight, lowers mood and alertness and performance degrades, and while consumption of more caffeine reverses these effects, it does not boost functioning to above normal levels. Caffeine increases anxiety, especially in susceptible individuals (Rogers, 2007).

A recent study that examined the relationship between coffee and the risk of heart attack incorporated a genetic polymorphism associated with a slower rate of caffeine metabolism and provides strong evidence that caffeine also affects risk of coronary heart disease (Cornelis & El-Sohemy, 2007). According to this journal article, diterpenes present in unfiltered coffee and caffeine appears to increase the risk of coronary heart disease. A diet high in caffeine increases calcium excretion in the urine, a contributor to osteoporosis (Wrotny, 2005). Recent studies have shown that a diet high in caffeine, low in antioxidants and high in red meat may contribute to an increased risk for developing rheumatoid arthritis (Oliver & Silman, 2006).

Effects of caffeine

While teaching a graduate course on Human Behavior in the Social Environment, a seasoned social worker who has worked with adolescents for over twenty-five years instructed her class of future counselors, that in counseling adolescents she has found that many overt behaviors disappear by simply eliminating the teenager’s caffeine consumption.

Caffeine can produce a clinical dependent syndrome. Symptoms include but are not limited to feelings of euphoria, talkativeness and hyperactivity, feelings of versatility, anxiety and sleep disturbances. In one case report, consumption of 4 or 5 energy drinks a day resulted in interpersonal problems with family and work colleagues, impulsive extravagance, feelings of anxiety and insecurity and dissociative behaviors.

When the energy drink was gradually discontinued, the symptoms completely disappeared and ten years later there has been no recurrence of manic behavior and no intake of the energy drink. In another case, a 40 year-old housewife began taking caffeine to stay awake to visit her hospitalized father three times a week. Within 5 weeks her dose increased to 1,000 milligrams a day of caffeine. She began experiencing feelings of strong anxiety, palpitations, feelings of heat in her cheeks and a rushing of blood to her head, agitation, sleep disturbance and then the inability to perform household chores.

A medical consultation led to a diagnosis of caffeine intoxication and dependence. All negative symptoms disappeared and have not returned in seven years after gradual discontinuance of caffeine (Ogawa & Ueki, 2007). Caffeine can produce a clinical dependence syndrome similar to other psychoactive substances and has a potential for abuse.

Unfortunately children and adolescents receive insufficient information on caffeine so there is a tendency to consume large quantities. In the USA, the permissible limit of caffeine is 200 mg per liter. Energy drinks contain caffeine at levels above the FDA limit for sodas (65 milligrams per 12 ounces) a fact not disclosed on most labels. The caffeine in energy drinks tested at the University of Florida ranged from 33 milligrams to 141 milligrams in a 16-ounce Sobe No Fear. They also found more than the recommended amount in Starbucks’ Doubleshot, with 105 milligrams of caffeine (Popkin et al., 2006).

Caffeine makes the heart beat abnormally fast, constricts the cerebral blood vessels, delays the onset of sleep and reduces the total sleeping time. Caffeine also produces gastrointestinal problems. Caffeine is dangerous in pregnancy because it crosses the placenta. The main mechanism of action of caffeine in the central nervous system is antagonism at the level of adenosine receptors. Important secondary effects also occur on many classes of neurotransmitters, including dopamine (Garrett & Griffiths, 1997). Caffeine increases blood pressure, and raised blood pressure in middle age increases risk of cognitive impairment later in life (Stewart, 1999). High caffeine users do not perform as well on verbal reasoning tests according to a study by Dr. Paula Mitchell of Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. Excessive caffeine intake overworks the glandular system and can quickly deplete the body of vitamins B, C, magnesium, and several micro nutrients, according to nutritional psychologist Marc David MA (David, 2005).

The health risks from consuming large quantities and from the long term use of caffeine are serious. Currently, not only are there no warning labels on products containing caffeine, but more than the recommended amounts of caffeine are allowed in products that we indulge in frequently. The increased alertness and energy derived from caffeine are not worth the negative health risks. A safe, natural way to increase alertness and energy needs to be substituted for ingesting caffeine. The risks are just too high.

Caffeine causes stress and weight gain

Caffeine aggravates emotional, mental and physiological stress. Caffeine increases the levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine and coritsol (stress hormones) which are responsible for high blood pressure and increased heart rate. Under the influence of these hormones, oxygen to the brain and extremities is reduced and the immune system is inhibited.

Research shows a relationship between habitual caffeine use and excessive levels of the stress hormones. Elevated levels of cortisol appear to cause accumulation of extra fat in the abdomen, as well as an increased appetite and the craving of fat-rich foods. Weight gain in the abdomen also stimulates the release of additional stress hormones.

Caffeine also acts on the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands and causes hypoglycemia. This causes decreased circulation to the brain, immediate and continual constriction of blood vessels throughout the body and a pervasive feeling of low blood sugar. The feelings of low blood sugar cause an increase in appetite and food cravings and further interfere with the maintaining a proper body weight.

Alternative energy therapy

In a preliminary study (conducted by of 21 male and female college students between the ages of 19 and 24, researchers found that participants who smelled a specially formulated fragrance experienced an increased perception of energy and in performance scores of recalling historical facts and dates than during exposure to a recognizable food odor or a pleasant neutral odor.

All test subjects were in good health and had normal olfactory ability, as measured by a preliminary medical assessment. Each subject completed a battery of pre and post-trial cognitive, physical and psychological assessments that included; visual acuity, reading ability, sleep and study habits; and rating of feelings of self esteem, self discipline, confidence, etc.

The subjects participated in a one-hour, college freshman level test on U.S. History in a timed, “final exam” setting. The test was conducted after a 2-hour “cramming” study period. A monetary award of $25 was offered to participants that scored 90% and above. During all phases of the blind study, each participant was given a specially designed finger ring that had been infused with one of the particular scents. The subjects were instructed to inhale the scent repeatedly and freely throughout both study testing periods. All subjects underwent three separate U.S. History study periods and tests, one under each odor condition over an eight-day period.

Research findings

The findings showed that the special formulation most effected the participant’s performance when recall of exact dates and associated names was required. Remembering lists of items showed moderate improvement. Recalling contextual facts alone showed modest improvement.

An increased sense of wakefulness was reported as was a feeling of improved concentration. A moderate decrease in overall frustration was also noted. Subjects reported themselves feeling more positive about their overall mental abilities and having an increased motivation to perform even under the vigilance of the testing environment.

The study found the participants more able to ignore “disturbances” created during the testing period under the special odorant condition. Participants also reported feeling more satisfied with their results during the special odorant condition and even happier overall afterward.

These findings suggest that the special scent creates a physiological effect that stimulates the nervous and circulatory systems; a chemical effect that triggers the release of dopamine, endorphins and other neurotransmitters; and a psychological effect that elicits behavioral changes in mood, motivation, desire, attention, satisfaction, etc.

The primary goal of this study was to validate the aromatic blends for use in a commercial product. Further study is planned to refine the delivery mechanism before the products will be introduced to the marketplace.


A demand for increased stimulation, alertness and energy is driving the public to search for commercially available products and protocols. However, caffeine is an additive drug and must be treated as such. Abstinence from or at least moderation in its use, labeling of caffeinated products, expanded drug research and even de-socializing its acceptance must be considered as possible measures in dealing with this toxic health killer.


Cornelis, M. C., & El-Sohemy, A. (2007, February). Coffee, caffeine, and coronary heart disease. Curr Opin Lipidol, 18(1), 13-9.

Crowe, M. J., Leicht, A. S., & Spinks, W. L. (2006). Physiological and cognitive responses to caffeine during repeated, high-intensity exercise. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 16, 528-544.

David, M. (2005). The slowdown diet: Eating for pleasure, energy, and weight loss (1st ed.). : Healing Arts Press.

Garrett, B. E., & Griffiths, R. R. (1997). The role of dopamine in the behavioral effects of caffeine in animals and humans. Pharmacol. Biochem. Behav., 57, pp. 553-541.

Ogawa, N., & Ueki, H. (2007). Clinical importance of caffeine dependence and abuse. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 61, 263-268.

Oliver, J. E., & Silman, A. J. (2006, May). Risk factors for the development of rheumatoid arthritis. Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatoid Arthritis, 35(3), pp. 169-174.

Popkin, B. M., Armstrong, L. E., Bray, G. M., Caballero, B., Frei, B., & Willett, W. C. (2006, March). . A new proposed guidance system for beverage consumption in the United States, 83(3), pp. 529-542.

Rogers, P. J. (2007). Caffeine, mood and mental performance in everyday life. British Nutrition Foundation, Nutrition bulletin 32(32 (suppl 1)), 84-89.

Rogers, P. J., Heatherly, S. V., & Mullings, E. L. (2006). Licit drug use and depression, anxiety, and stress. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 20((suppl.) A27), .

Stewart, R. (1999). Hypertension and cognitive decline. British Journal of Psychiatry, 174, pp. 286-7.

Wrotny, C. (2005). Osteoporosis: What women want to know. MEDSURG Nursing, 14(6), pp. 405-415.

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