Coffee and alarm clock

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If you’ve spent more time with a buzz-inducing cup of coffee than you have with your best friend this week, you’re not alone.

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, more than 70 percent of students say they have at least one coffee or caffeinated drink a day. And it’s not just the joe. Caffeine is everywhere—in tea, pop, energy drinks, and even some types of gum and chocolate.

People who consume caffeine daily or multiple times a day may become “dependent” on it, meaning they need more of it to get the same results and they may suffer mild withdrawal symptoms (e.g., headaches, irritability) if they stop, according to a 2013 review of the literature published in the Journal of Caffeine Research.

Caffeine works by blocking the brain’s adenosine receptors (adenosine is a brain chemical that makes you feel sleepy and sluggish). Preventing you from feeling tired is how it helps fuel your marathon study sessions.

How much is too much?

Caffeine is OK in moderation: 2–3 eight-ounce cups of coffee a day, or 4–10 cups of tea depending on how strong you like your tea, according to Dr. Tellier. Keep in mind that the actual caffeine content varies widely among caffeinated beverages and serving sizes.

“When consumed in excess, caffeine [can have] negative effects, such as insomnia, headaches, irritability, and nervousness,” says Dr. Catherine Pound, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Ottawa in Ontario.

What did having too much caffeine feel like for students?

“My hands were shaking uncontrollably, my heart was racing, my mouth was dry, and I felt very nauseous and dizzy/off balance. I also had difficulty concentrating. The symptoms were very sudden and aggressive. They remained for several hours before slowly dissipating.”
—Melanie S., third-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

“At first, it helped me focus and feel alert, but after a while, it started to give me butterflies in my stomach like I was nervous. That feeling made me nervous about what I had to get done, and ultimately counteracted the alertness the caffeine had initially been having on me.”
—Iona L., second-year graduate student, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“I felt like I had put a fork in an electrical socket.”
—Chris L., second-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick

The amount of caffeine found in some of your favorite drinks may surprise you. A 20-ounce Starbucks Venti® coffee has 475 milligrams of caffeine. A 20-ounce Dunkin’ Donuts coffee with a Turbo Shot® has 398 milligrams of caffeine. A 2-ounce energy shot has up to 200 milligrams of caffeine. A 16-ounce Monster or Rockstar energy drink has 160 milligrams of caffeine. A 16-ounce Starbucks grande cappuccino has 150 milligrams of caffeine. A 16-ounce grande Starbucks chai tea latte has 95 milligrams of caffeine. A 12-ounce average soda has 35-45 milligrams of caffeine.

Caffeine’s side effects

Caffeine can negatively affect your sleep and anxiety levels, and even contribute to panic attacks and blood pressure problems. Here’s how:

Caffeine can mess up your total sleep schedule because it can stay in your bloodstream for up to 10 hours, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Caffeine interferes with the sleep-wake cycle,” says Dr. Pound. “Avoid consuming caffeine in the late afternoon, especially if you’re having trouble falling asleep at night.”

Adolescents who ingested the most caffeine each day had higher scores of anxiety and depression than those who ingested the least, according to a 2016 study published in the Korean Journal of Family Medicine.

Caffeine can increase heart rate and blood pressure, according to Harvard researchers, and that can lead to health problems, including panic attacks and nausea. While it might sound extreme, ending up in the hospital because of too much caffeine occasionally happens says Dr. Robert Glatter, Emergency Physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

It probably wouldn’t hurt for most of us to cut back on our caffeine consumption—especially if we find ourselves having a hard time falling asleep at night or feeling particularly needy for that next cup. If you’re ready to reduce your caffeine intake, first do the math. If you start your day with a large coffee, grab a pop between classes, and sip tea during your evening study session, you’re racking up over 600 milligrams of caffeine—and you may not even realize it.

“If you want to stop or cut back, you might have to expect to deal with symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and headaches,” says Dr. Tellier. “These symptoms increase for about three days and then disappear within a week or so. The good news is not everyone has symptoms, so give it a try.”

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How to cut back without turning into a zombie

1. Go half and half.

Order a half-caffeinated/half-decaf drink in the a.m. or add more water to your home brew to dilute the caffeine in your daily coffee instead of downing your usual high-octane version, suggests Dr. Sweeney. “Relatively small amounts of caffeine can help relieve withdrawal symptoms, so combining a mostly decaffeinated beverage with a small amount of caffeinated coffee may be a helpful strategy to cut back,” she says.

2. Think small.

A typical travel coffee mug can hold around 14 to 30 ounces on average—that’s anywhere from double to almost quadruple a standard cup of joe! If you take your coffee to go, trade in your oversized travel mug for an 8-ounce single-serving to-go mug.

3. Sneak in a snooze.

To combat the grogginess you’re likely to feel when cutting back on caffeine, take a power nap (as long as it’s before 3 p.m. so it doesn’t mess with your nighttime sleep). A 20- to 30-minute nap can boost mood, alertness, and performance, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Find out more about napping here.

 “A quick 20-minute nap always leaves me feeling alert and recharged.”
—Hejer M., first-year graduate student, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

4. Look for low-caf.

Switch up your favorite beverages for something similar but with less caffeine. Swap soda for a green tea kombucha, which typically contains less than 30 milligrams of caffeine, or switch your evening Earl Grey for a caffeine-free herbal tea.

 “I tried to fool myself by drinking decaf teas or rooibos teas with milk. I was tired at first, but it worked after a while. I consume less caffeine now.”
—Sophie L., fourth-year student, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada

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5. Say hello to H2O.

Drink more water than caffeinated beverages, says Dr. Pound. If you regularly drink a lot of caffeine, cutting back may mean experiencing some withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches or nausea, but keeping yourself hydrated by drinking lots of water will help.

“Caffeine is a mild diuretic, which means you’re dehydrating yourself, so you need more water to feel good/normal. It also just makes you feel more alert. [I’ve found] starting my day with a bottle of water can wake me up really fast and hydrate my body after a long night of sleep.”
—Lindsay M., fifth-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada

“I drank a lot more water and some drinks without caffeine. Less caffeine generally led to headaches, but my body felt better while I drank more water.”
—Natalie K., second-year student, University of Central Arkansas

6. Snack smarter.

Swap a high-protein snack for your caffeine crutch to keep your energy up naturally. Healthy, fatigue-fighting snacks should be rich in protein, fiber, and whole grains (e.g., multigrain toast with nut butter and sliced fruit).

7. Sleep smarter.

Reaching for cappuccino number three can seem like the only way to stay awake through a monster study session. But there’s another solution: sleep. If you can’t fit more hours of sleep into your crazy-packed schedule, focus on improving the quality of the sleep you do get by keeping your bedroom cool and dark and switching your phone to night mode to cut down on the blue screen light that can mess with your internal clock. Find more useful sleep tips here.

8. Set a caffeine curfew.

Enjoy your caffeine at least six hours before bedtime to get the sweetest Zs. A dose of caffeine any closer to bedtime can significantly disturb your rest, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

9. Explore new ways to stay alert.

Fitness breaks can help you stay perked up while reducing your caffeine quota. Just walking or running up and down stairs for 10 minutes can lower fatigue and boost energy, according to a 2017 study in Physiology & Behavior.

The bottom line: Everyone is affected by caffeine differently, so there’s no surefire way to predict how quitting cold turkey or loading up on large coffees would affect you. Your best bet for cashing in on the benefits of caffeine without any of the health risks is to notice how your body feels when you consume it and try to keep your consumption in check.

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Article sources

Candice Dye, MD, pediatrician and assistant director, Pediatric Residency Program, School of Medicine, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Robert Glatter, MD, emergency physician, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York, New York.

Dana Greene, RD, LDN, Boston, Massachusetts.

Lisa Y. Lefferts, MSPH, senior scientist, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, DC.

Jeannie Moorjani, MD, pediatrician, Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, Orlando, Florida.

Mary M. Sweeney, PhD, instructor, Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland.

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