Written by Amal Elali
Starbucks are nearly found on every corner, serving freshly brewed coffee and refreshing teas. The lines are often endless, but Starbucks only touches base when promoting its caffeinated drinks. What are we really drinking and what effect is it having on our bodies? With coffee and tea being the most consumed drinks, it is important to understand how caffeine affects the human body (1).
Caffeine is a basic, white crystalline compound, mainly composed of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen (2). It is derived from many plants and is used as a central nervous system stimulant. In a 20-ounce coffee cup from Starbucks, about 475 mg of it is caffeine (4). As a result, people often rely on coffee to provide them with an energy boost and to wake them up. Since caffeine is a stimulant, however, large doses can leave people feeling jittery or even experiencing heart palpitations. Caffeine remains in the body for hours after consumption and it is difficult to break down. It also acts as a drug, thereby increasing alertness and even increasing pain tolerance. Its molecular structure is similar to adenosine, a neurotransmitter. Adenosine, when bound to the brain, promotes relaxation and drowsiness, thus causing people to feel sleepy (7). However, since caffeine is similar to adenosine, it can bind in place of adenosine, preventing a state of relaxation, inducing a feeling of increased alertness. As such, people often times heavily rely on their morning coffee to get them through the day.
Coffee shops seek to attract a younger audience, and as a result the coffee business on college campuses has flourished in the last couple of years (5). The question is still prominent: why are young college students so attracted to caffeine? As students increase their consumption of caffeine, it is believed that their memory and sense of focus becomes heightened. Since the structures of caffeine and adenosine are similar, when caffeine inhibits the binding of adenosine, levels of dopamine and norepinephrine increase in the body. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that is released in response to stress and thus increasing its levels will in turn decrease stress levels (3). Similarly, dopamine is another critical neurotransmitter affected by caffeine levels. Dopamine is associated with many important brain functions such as memory, learning abilities, mood, pleasure, and motivation. As dopamine levels increase in the brain, individuals feel a sense of pleasure, and lower levels of stress. Nonetheless, students often claim that their performance levels are enhanced in stressful situations when they have consumed caffeine. Although the effects of caffeine in the body are only experienced for short periods of time, its effect on performance levels attracts the younger audience. But is this attraction healthy? As students rely on caffeine to heighten their sense of focus, they are gradually becoming addicted. Regularly drinking coffee induces dependence; therefore, people often find themselves distorted when they don’t have it. More specifically, once caffeine is eliminated from the body, people begin to experience withdrawal symptoms, and they wake up with a headache and may feel groggy until they’ve had their routine cup of coffee. Caffeine withdrawal is considered to be a mental health condition because it can hinder a person’s ability to perform as they normally would. For example, it amplifies stress hormones, leaving consumers in a tense state with increased blood pressure. So with all these negative side effects, why do people continue to consume caffeine?
Although caffeine is considered to be an abusive drug, small to moderate amounts can actually be beneficial for one’s health. Withdrawing from coffee can lead to depression, but in the same way it can prevent depression. In a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health on female coffee drinkers, women who drank coffee regularly had a 20% less chance of suffering from depression (6). In addition, coffee is full of antioxidants and thus can prevent many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and even cancer. A typical cup of coffee contains various forms of vitamin B, potassium, phosphorous and many more essential nutrients (8). As a result, drinking caffeinated drinks may increase longevity.
As one can gather, caffeine consumption has various benefits and consequences. A person has a certain limit when consuming caffeine, and exceeding that limit induces many negative side effects. The question arises now as to how much coffee is too much? Unfortunately this answer varies for each person. Caffeine is analogous to drug medication: the dosage for each person varies, as does the amount of coffee that can or cannot be consumed. So when waiting in line at Starbucks, consider your caffeine consumption for the day; have you reached your threshold?
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(2)"Caffeine." Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.
(3)"What Is Norepinephrine? - Effects, Function & Definition - Video & Lesson Transcript."Study.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.
(4)"Caffeine Chart | Center for Science in the Public Interest." Caffeine Chart | Center for Science in the Public Interest. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2017.
(5)"Coffee Shop." Coffee Shop Research Report - U.S. Small Business Administration. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.
(6) Lucas M, Mirzaei F, Pan A, Okereke OI, Willett WC, O’Reilly ÉJ, Koenen K, Ascherio A. Coffee, Caffeine, and Risk of Depression Among Women. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(17):1571-1578.
(7) Hajhashemi, V., G. Vaseghi, M. Pourfarzam, and A. Abdollahi. "Are Antioxidants Helpful for Disease Prevention?" Research in Pharmaceutical Sciences. Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2010. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3093095/
(8) "Antioxidants: In Depth." National Center for for Complementary and Integrative Health.