Caffeine is often the staple of every college student's existence. Truckload academics, the pressure to perform, and rampant sleep deprivation all made me turn to coffee and other stimulants to keep my energy churning.
There's a romanticism, too, to dropping by a café and sipping espresso while working on an essay for class. Caffeine is a win-win kind of substance: it can be stylistic and energizing at the same time.
My caffeine dependency has waned since my early college days, yet I still find myself craving it. But is this "dependency" a good thing? Or should I be worried? I decided to do some sleuthing to find out.
Apparently, there is a website called The Caffeine Informer (who knew?). Here, I discovered a slew of benefits linked to caffeine consumption, including improved memory function, liver detoxification, and prevention of weight gain.
A host of studies have also examined caffeine's ability to lower your risk of a variety of cancers, kidney stones, fatty liver disease, and even suicide. Wow! Other studies investigate caffeine's ability to increase athletic performance, general stamina, and cognitive function.
The majority of these studies, however, used the word "associated" or "linked to." In the medical community, such terminology indicates that these studies are not 100% conclusive. Further research needs to be done to ensure that any of these "associations" become "conclusions."
Nonetheless, I can state from experience that caffeine does seem to fire and smoothe those mental circuits rather effectively; I've consumed caffeine prior to workouts with positive results, and I'm fairly certain my liver is happy (TBD). Caffeine can also elevate mood, making it a potential asset for individuals struggling with depression.
I appreciated the fact that The Caffeine Informer also included a post scrutinizing the negative aspects of caffeine consumption. These, I will admit, proved to be more alarming—caffeine consumption has been linked to early death, heart failure, breast tissue cysts and cancers, miscarriages, indigestion, and much much more.
AARP was quick to back up these claims, pointing out that caffeine is, indeed, a drug—to which many people can build dependencies. Too much caffeine can indeed be harmful to holistic health, particularly given its capacity to disrupt sleep patterns, elevate anxiety, and even interact badly with certain medications.
One study affirmed caffeine's impact on how we manage blood sugar levels. Sugary caffeinated drinks can essentially lead to blood sugar volatility, "stressing out your brain" and increasing your odds of psychological distress. A similar study pointed to the fact that depressed individuals are more likely to drink high levels of caffeine, and that the substance itself can promote depressive mood.
Given the fact that I weaned myself off of coffee due to its ability to make my heart race—and my agenda loom in an ugly way—this makes a lot of sense. What's more, over 90 percent of Americans consume caffeine on a daily basis, and I assume that a large portion of this percentage tends to over-consume.
No single study, researcher, or article out there will claim that caffeine is entirely beneficial nor entirely detrimental. (I mean, Starbucks has to make a living somehow, yes?)
The bulk of caffeine's advantages and disadvantages appear to be medical associations, making it all the more difficult to define it as a hazard or kitchen-cabinet-standard.
Yet one thread does appear to ring true: the high we crave from caffeine impacts our physiology. It may require some moderation because it can all too easily become a crutch. It has the capacity to provide hazard and health, much like alcohol, other stimulants, and even some herbal supplements.
There are certain vehicles for caffeine that are better than others. Green tea, for example, packs in a lot of antioxidants and amino acids your body craves while delivering a mild energy boost. Gas station energy drinks, on the other hand, tend to offer nothing more than cane sugar and artificial colorings (in addition to a caffeine rush).
My verdict? Treat it like any relationship. Consume if you wish, but consume wisely. Don't be afraid to stop if it's not serving you well.
If you've read this post looking for validation for your current caffeine consumption, I'm not here to provide it (sorry!). I'm merely here to offer some of the facts that are swimming around laboratories, medical mags, and blogging platforms. Such statistics should not feel like a true tragedy. If anything, they should compel the kind of body awareness that can change your life for the better.
There are alternatives to caffeine, particularly if you find yourself reaching for caffeinated beverages for the sake of that vital, intoxicating energy boost. There are scores of mood- and energy-elevating substances, including herbal supplements, that can do the trick nicely, for a fraction (if any) of the biological and physiological cost.
I'm a fan of maca root, for example, consumed in beverage or capsule form. Maca root, also known as Peruvian ginseng, is revered for its capacity to promote stamina, improve cognitive function, and even address fertility issues (although the latter is certainly not on my radar). The surge of energy it offers most consumers doesn't result in the jitters, either, and it's even associated with hormone balancing potential.
You may also wish to try out ashwagandha, a known adaptogen that can reduce the impact of oxidative stress, prevent the development of free radicals (associated with cancer), and keep your energy on an even keel throughout the day. I consume this herb in capsule form, but I've been seeing health food store beverages with traces of ashwagandha lately.
Lastly, check out Chinese ginseng, frequently found in standard strains of tea. Be cautious with ginseng, however, if you are particularly sensitive to caffeine or stimulants. Some people report feeling overly anxious or jittery after consuming ginseng, so use wisely.
For now, if all of this sounds like too much, consider transitioning to more lightly caffeinated beverages, such as green tea (which as less than half the caffeine content of coffee). Easing your body off of this substance may be your key to striking the healthful balance you deserve.