Behind the need for caffeine

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By Sarah Rosenblum

Although it is only September and we are just getting into the groove of the new academic year, students and faculty wake up every morning craving their fix. As your morning alarm goes off and you press the snooze button one (more like three) too many times, there is only one thing on your mind that can motivate you to get out of bed.

Whether you like yours skinny, iced, with a splash of soy or Splenda, or with extra foam and sprinkled cinnamon, your customized creation says a lot about who you are.

But besides the calories, sugar and the seasonal aroma of pumpkin-spiced latte bliss, what truly lies within your cup of morning joe, and why is it is so addictive?

Caffeine (1, 3, 7-trimethxanthine): the drug we don’t think about.

It is the most used psychoactive drug in the world. 80 percent of adults in the U.S. consume caffeine, typically through coffee, tea, carbonated beverages and chocolate. Even some over the counter medications such as Midol and Excedrin contain caffeine, as it can help reduce headache pain.

When consumed in moderation, caffeine has beneficial qualities, which lure us in when we are feeling sleep deprived and lethargic.

While your morning cup of coffee can provide the extra boost of energy you need to start the day, think twice before downing energy drinks and soda throughout the afternoon, as it can take its toll on your body as well as your mental performance.

According to neuroscientist Timothy Harrigan from Albany Medical College, “One to three cups of coffee contain 85-250 mg of caffeine. At such concentrations, caffeine can enhance alertness, lessen the feeling of fatigue, and enhance one’s ability to process information.”

What we need to be cautioned about is exceeding this level of 250 mg.

“When we consume higher levels of caffeine, such as 250-500 mg, there may be a resulting sense of restlessness, insomnia, nervousness and even tremors,” Harrigan explains. “In even higher doses, an individual may be thrown into a hyperadrenergic syndrome that can result in seizure activity and cardiovascular instability.”

To put things in perspective, one two-ounce five-hour energy drink has 138 mg of caffeine. 12 ounces of diet coke has 45 mg.  8 ounces of redbull has 80 mg.  And surprisingly, 16 ounces of an Arizona green iced tea energy drink has 200 mg!

Chemistry professor Joanne Kehlbeck agrees that moderate caffeine consumption may have its benefits.

“Recent research published this past year has proven caffeine to be a powerful antioxidant that can prevent harmful radicals from acting on our bodies,” she says. “Humans metabolize caffeine to several compounds in the body.”

Ever wonder why we crave chocolate when we are feeling down? Kehlbeck says we can attribute this to the “feel good molecule” found in chocolate, also known as theobromine.

“Caffeine and its metabolites interact with lots of different receptors in the human body such as the enzyme phosphodiesterase, which regulates heart rate in addition to many other processes,” Kehlbeck adds. “The interactions with adenosine receptors affect the regulation of dopamine resulting in the feeling of arousal and satisfaction.”

When it comes to caffeine, it is best to refer to what Aristotle once stated:  “Everything in moderation, even moderation.”

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