We know that too much caffeine can be bad for us. But between the recent ban on schools Premier energy drinks and due to the death of a teenager Panera’s highly caffeinated lemonade (and his parent’s subsequent lawsuit), many are just wondering how Is too much caffeine too much? How much should you drink to risk an overdose?
We consulted two nutritionists for their expertise on all things caffeine. Here’s everything you need to know about what’s in your morning coffee and whether you should think twice before drinking that 3pm Diet Coke.
What does caffeine do to you?
Caffeine is a chemical stimulant found “in naturally occurring plants such as coffee beans, tea leaves, cacao beans, and guarana berries,” says Ally Mast, RDN. Most of us consume it directly in extractive beverages such as coffee or tea. It is also extracted in laboratories and added to beverages such as soft drinks, energy drinks, sports supplements and medicines.
Once it hits our system, caffeine increases our alertness and reduces fatigue, at least temporarily. Kim YavitzRD, owner of Two Six Fitness in St. Louis, says it “increases the activity of the central nervous system and speeds up the speed of communication between the brain and the rest of the body.” According to Mast, it also keeps us from getting tired by “blocking adenosine receptors,” which are sensors that monitor the build-up of adenosine in our bodies throughout the day and cause us to feel sleepy. Mast said that “only sleep clears that adenosine. “Caffeine doesn’t give you energy, it just delays fatigue a bit.” I mean, that 2pm cuppa is just postponing the inevitable.
At first, caffeine may seem like a great performance enhancer. Mast said it can “make people feel motivated (and) focused” as well as “improve learning, protect against depression, increase physical performance and increase metabolism.” But according to Yavitz, “having too much can lead to anxiety, insomnia, diarrhea, tremors, rapid heart rate, and other unpleasant side effects.” And in very extreme cases, death.
So how much should we drink?
The FDA’s recommendations for daily caffeine use for adults are uncomfortably tight. their 2023 report says that 400 milligrams a day is “an amount not usually associated with dangerous, adverse effects.”
Hmm “No in general related”? That’s not encouraging. That’s the amount of caffeine in about four eight-ounce cups of coffee. One can of Prime energy drink contains 200 mg of caffeine.
The FDA is also quick to remind us that there is “wide variation in how sensitive people are to the effects of caffeine and how quickly they metabolize it. [break it down]”. In other words, what isn’t too much caffeine for you may be too much for someone else.
Then there are other factors to consider. According to Yavitz, pregnant and breastfeeding women “may need to limit caffeine to 200 milligrams per day, simply because babies don’t have the enzymes they need to metabolize it.” Mast also said people with anxiety and heart disease should limit their caffeine intake because the stimulant can “increase anxiety, agitation and (and) blood pressure and cause heart palpitations.” People with gastroesophageal reflux disease should also avoid it, as caffeine can “make reflux symptoms worse.”
Children are a completely separate category. It American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry strictly prohibits the use of caffeine for any child under 12 years of age. Teenagers are a little different. According to Yavitz, “most healthy teenagers can safely consume up to 100 milligrams of caffeine per day,” which is roughly the equivalent of a 24-ounce soda or an eight-ounce cup of coffee. Or half a can of Prime energy drink.
Caffeinated or Decaffeinated?
Because everyone is different, there is no absolute answer to the question of how much caffeine is too much. Except for special conditions, most adults are probably safe at the FDA’s daily guideline of 400 mg. It’s just important to be mindful of how much you consume as well as when you use it. That morning coffee habit is fine as long as you’re aware of how much you’re drinking. Remember that an eight-ounce cup of coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine, and that your favorite cup probably contains at least 12 ounces. A 3pm diet soda is fine too, as long as you remember that 46mg of caffeine can keep you awake for 8-10 hours. No one wants to be up at 2am on a weeknight.
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