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Health Matters: Caffeine

What are the effects of too much coffee?

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How many times have you heard someone say, “Don’t even talk to me before I have my morning coffee?” Some people are fanatical about their caffeinated beverages and need an extra boost during the day. But coffee, while fine in moderation, can be addictive and isn’t the only, or the best, means of upping your energy.

Coffee gets its kick from caffeine, an addictive stimulant that affects the nervous system, giving the feeling of alertness and a boost of energy. “Many of us are used to having a small amount of caffeine, and if we don’t get it we have a headache and notice we don’t feel right,” says Beth Grampetro, the health and wellness educator at Student Health Services. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, nuts, and some over-the-counter pain medications, such as Midol or Excedrin. Its effects take about 30 to 60 minutes to kick in, and they wear off in about 4 to 6 hours.

But caffeine, which is a drug, has negative side effects: it can cause an irregular heart rate, ulcers, or heartburn. If you are accustomed to having caffeine daily, one day without any may result in headaches, feeling irritated, and experiencing nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms.

“What a lot of people don’t realize about caffeine is that it can make you disoriented if you take too much of it,” says Grampetro, who compares too much caffeine to being intoxicated. “When someone is drunk, at the time they’re doing something, they’re thinking, ‘Wow! I’m a fabulous dancer!’ Caffeine in large doses can make you feel the same way — as if you’re accomplishing a lot and you’re doing a really good job writing that paper, but then you go back and say, ‘Oh wait, I made all these mistakes.’”

So how much caffeine is too much? Three eight-ounce cups of coffee, which is about 250 milligrams, a day are okay, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A normal grande coffee from Starbucks has about 330 milligrams, well above the amount recommended by the NIH.

Energy drinks, such as Red Bull, are also popular, both as stimulants and as mixers with alcohol — but they can be dangerous. A typical 8.3-ounce can of Red Bull contains 80 milligrams of caffeine, about equal to one cup of coffee. When combined with alcohol, the caffeine in energy drinks can make you awake and alert, but feeling the effects of the alcohol a lot less. “Those can be a little bit more dangerous than a glass of beer,” Grampetro says, “because in addition to alcohol, you’ve also got the caffeine making you feel like a million bucks and like you could keep partying and keep going.”

Instead of consuming so much caffeine, she says, a great way to be more energized is to get more sleep. Few people get as much sleep as they should and turn to caffeine to get going in the morning. Having available snacks that are good for you is important too. Healthy foods from peanut butter on apple slices to a handful of trail mix will keep your energy level up so you’re not getting to that familiar point in the day: you’re starving, with no snack in sight, so you grab a coffee to hold you over until lunch.

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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