Take caution when you take a coffee break

Illustration by Dan Nacu.

Matt Shenker
Guest Columnist 

At this point in the semester, our classes are in full swing and Cabell Library is becoming a familiar second home for many of us as late-night studying and all-night cram sessions grow in prevalence.

As we attempt to ignore the noise from some of the on-going renovations, it seems study sessions are growing more frequent and longer. Of course, there are many things needed for these study sessions: notes, pens and pencils, a computer (partially to distract us), and, most prominently, a cup of coffee or energy drink.

VCU Starbucks has an estimated 12,000 customers each day. That number does not account for those who get their coffee fix somewhere else, or those who prefer energy drinks. Caffeine is becoming our most trusted study partner, but is it really helping you?

Most of us are acquainted with the benefits of caffeine, energy and alertness, both of which allow us to work more productively and efficiently. In fact, caffeine is so prevalent that 85 percent of children and adults consume caffeine on a regular basis.

Caffeine is prevalent among the normal daily lifestyle of most adults and children. In a 2007 issue of “The Nutrition Journal,” a study was published in which 51 percent of 496 college students admitted that they regularly resorted to coffee and other caffeinated beverages to help them in test preparation. The study indicated that higher levels of the stimulant (caffeine) in coffee showed increased levels of alertness and improved cognitive responses.

However, just like most things in life, there is a healthy balance between moderate and healthy consumption of caffeine and excessive and dangerous consumption of caffeine.

When drinking coffee for the purpose of increasing alertness for test-taking, knowing how your body reacts to caffeine is key. The drug begins its effects by initiating uncontrolled neuron firing in your brain, according to Stephen Cherniske in his book “Caffeine Blues.”

This excess neuron activity triggers your pituitary gland to secrete a hormone that tells your adrenal glands to produce adrenalin; this then leads to increased anxiety, stress and blood pressure along with increased alertness and focus. These negative side effects could be labeled as caffeine intoxication. Caffeine intoxication is a mental disorder that can vary depending on one’s tolerance, usually around 250 mg, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of American Psychiatric.

This caffeine intoxication is the threshold that one breaks through when levels of irritability, anxiousness, sleeplessness and irregular heartbeat reach a recognizable level.

The threat of caffeine intoxication can grow as one’s need for it grows. The more caffeine we drink, the greater our tolerance becomes, which results in us needing more caffeine in order to feel the focus and alertness that is found to be so helpful.

Another concern is that, like all drugs, when use is decreased or stopped, you may be at risk of caffeine withdrawal. Symptoms of withdrawal from caffeine include sleeplessness, anxiousness, headaches and stress, all without the associated effect of increased focus and alertness. Along with the negative psychological effects
of caffeine intake, excessive use and withdrawal can also lead to cardiovascular issues.

This cardiovascular threat is made worse when taking into consideration the cocktail of stimulants and additives that are in energy drinks.

According to Dr. Dace Svikis, a professor and researcher in the VCU Department of Psychology, ER visits that cite energy drinks as a cause for admission have doubled from 2007 to 2011 and case reports linking excessive energy drink consumption to deaths have surfaced. These negative side effects are made exponentially worse when combined with alcohol. Combining alcohol, which is a depressant, with caffeine and other stimulants in energy drinks takes your heart on a roller coaster that can lead to disaster.

Although caffeine and coffee can certainly remain a helpful and healthy aspect of a diet, it’s important to remember to use it in moderation. The FDA has said that it is safe for adults to consume approximately 400 mg of caffeine daily. This FDA-approved number simply cites the amount that has been found physically safe to consume without a serious threat of needing to resort to medical assistance. The negative side effects associated with caffeine intoxication can still occur.

According to Saviski, these harmful effects can be avoided with decreased caffeine intake. Some may be not want to lose the energy and focus that caffeine gives them, but, as Stephen Cherniske and Saviski both suggest, that other methods, such as a healthy diet and regular exercise, may also have positive effects on energy levels and ability to focus.

Consuming recommended daily doses of vitamins, minerals and protein, along with physical activity, may provide a person with more energy throughout the day and reduce risk for adverse physical or psychological health problems.

As those study sessions continue to become more familiar, as you prepare all that you need before you study and as you reach for that cup of coffee or energy drink can, remember to consider your health and use moderation.

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