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Caffeine’s benefits and dangers

January 27, 2017 (Updated: August 16, 2018)

Many people forget—caffeine is a drug. It alters mood, behavior, and the chemical workings of your body. There are probably more people addicted to caffeine than any other drug on the planet. Maybe more than all other drugs combined. So you might be surprised to hear me say—that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Though a drug, caffeine—taken in moderation, from clean sources—can actually be great for your body. Of course, as in all things, dosage is key. So read on to see how your morning routine—or your coffee nightcap—could be affecting your health, for good and for ill.

Caffeine Doesn’t Just Wake You Up…

There are a number of things that happen in your body when you eat or drink caffeine.

The effect caffeine is most known for, though, is waking you up.

Caffeine performs the trick by attaching to adenosine receptors in your brain. Adenosine is responsible for slowing down your neural activity, and eventually leading you to a sleeping state. Block that chemical, and you block sleepiness.

But that’s not all caffeine does. It also increases neural activity—which is one of the reasons so many people feel so alert and effective on caffeine.

Studies show caffeine is a powerful drug to fight certain liver diseases and reduce asthma symptoms. While that isn’t a universal good, it’s pretty great if you’ve got those issues.

Caffeine ramps up your metabolism, by breaking down and helping the body burn through fat. There’s a reason caffeine is the active ingredient in most diet pills.

Caffeine also increases muscle strength, which can lead to better, stronger, or longer workouts.

Some research suggests caffeine protects brain cells, lowering the risk of diseases like Parkinson’s.

It also reduces inflammation in the body, which helps combat all sorts of nasty maladies, most especially heart disease.

Finally, caffeine constricts the blood vessels in your brain, which can eliminate some headaches—and greatly enhances the potency of pain-relieving drugs. Indeed, lots of pain relievers have caffeine built right into their formula.

But There Can Be Too Much Of A Good Thing

One cup of coffee in the morning will bring you all these benefits.

But too many people don’t stop with one. Or two, which is generally considered the limit for positive effects.

After that, you cross over into negative territory relatively quickly.

Caffeine, after all, also releases adrenaline into your blood. Drink too much caffeine, and you’ll feel that adrenaline as a jittery, unsettled mess.

Caffeine also has a significant effect on bone density. Drink too much coffee regularly, and you greatly increase your odds of developing osteoporosis.

While caffeine can cure some types of headaches, overdoing it can easily cause others, as the blood flow to your brain constricts too much.

Caffeine can cause short-term heart problems, like palpitations, rapid heartbeats, and increased blood pressure. Of course, putting your body through that on a daily basis will eventually cause damage. And, in the short-term, it makes for a very unpleasant morning.

A mild overdose of caffeine can also make you a very unpleasant person to be around, as you become irritable, anxious, and sometimes even nauseous. That’s not how you want to repeat each morning.

Finally, if you drink too much caffeine often enough, your body can quickly become dependent on it. To give one example, a body constantly flooded by caffeine will grow new adenosine receptors to try to balance out. And the moment you stop drinking coffee, that plethora of adenosine receptors will make you feel sluggish, lethargic, and sleepy.

The only cure is another cup of coffee. And you’re right back into the cycle.

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There’s no doubt that caffeine can be a great benefit to your health. But only if you do it right.

How To Find The Right Balance

First, if you like coffee, that’s not a problem at all.

Just make sure you have a clean cup. Use natural, filtered water, and make your coffee with organic beans.

If you don’t use organic beans, there’s no telling what else you’re getting in your morning cup of coffee. Insecticides and pesticides are only the start.

Avoid the fancy drinks you’ll find in many coffee shops. Some of those have around twice the calories you’d find in a Big Mac!

If you’re ordering a drink with the words ‘frozen,’ ‘mocha,’ or ‘chocolate,’ you’re probably getting way too many calories in your cup.

Black is the purest way to take your coffee. But, if you don’t like the taste, you can get away with adding a (very little!) bit of raw sugar, and some organic milk or cream. Just don’t go crazy—a teaspoon of either should be plenty, if not too much.

Although much of the medical literature thinks two cups of coffee a day is fine, I tell my patients to only have one.

There’s caffeine in plenty of other foods and drinks, so I like to have a little wiggle room.

I also always recommend you have that cup of coffee early in the day. Caffeine has a half-life of 5-6 hours, which means whatever caffeine you drink at 10 am, you’ll still have 25% of it coursing through your body when you try to go to sleep at 10 pm.

The biggest short-term problem caffeine causes for the majority of the population is insomnia. Your sleep is important—don’t let decisions earlier in the day affect your sleep schedule!

If you feel like you need a pick-me-up later in the day, switch to a drink with lower doses of caffeine—like tea.

I recommend trying green tea, which research has linked to cancer-fighting antioxidants, antiviral benefits, a decrease in strokes, and overall longevity.

That’s a pretty powerful way to get your caffeine fix throughout the day.

Whatever you do, stop drinking all caffeine by 3-4 pm. And never exceed 300 milligrams in your body at any one time, as you’ll doom yourself to poor sleep, along with all the negative side effects of overdoing your coffee.

An 8 oz cup of coffee contains 100 milligrams of caffeine. An energy drink can have up to 160 milligrams. A serving of chocolate might have as little as 5 milligrams. And a cup of green tea has anywhere from 35-70 milligrams of caffeine in it.

Remember, six hours later you’ll still have 50% of the caffeine you consumed earlier, and 12 hours later you’ll still have 25%. So be careful drinking caffeine through the day, as it can easily build up.

By the time you go to bed, you definitely want to have less than 50 milligrams of caffeine in your body, so you can go to sleep without interference.

As long as you can hold to these fairly easy guidelines—and, believe me, if you don’t, your body will let you know—than you can feel very safe enjoying the world’s most popular drug.

Better than that, you can feel good. Because caffeine, taken in moderation, is great for your health, your mood, and your brain. It’s rare I see a drug that doesn’t make me extremely nervous. But caffeine fits the bill.

Just watch your intake, avoid the 1,000 calorie concoctions, and you won’t have to worry about the downsides, while you’ll be able to enjoy all the benefits.

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