You may have seen the recent article published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine declaring that no amount of caffeine is safe to consume during pregnancy. For many women this was quite a shock, as we’ve been told for years that 200 mg caffeine per day is safe to consume while pregnant. I work with many women and couples who are trying to conceive and who are pregnant and in light of this recent claim, it seemed important to highlight the health benefits and detriments of consuming caffeine.
Eighty-five percent of the U.S. population regularly consumes caffeine and mostly in the form of coffee. Coffee is the most widely consumed beverage, next to water. It’s safe to say caffeine consumption is a common practice, but how beneficial is this practice? There has been a long-standing debate regarding the safety of coffee on overall health, but especially when it comes to blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Caffeine’s safety and side effects have only been extensively studied for a little over 100 years and we are constantly learning new things as science improves. Currently, the Mayo Clinic reports a healthy adult can safely drink up to 400 mg of caffeine a day (3-4 cups of coffee) without adverse health effects. However, everyone reacts to the stimulant differently and a general recommendation should be made with caution. Whether you consume coffee for its flavor or ability to give drowsiness a boot, you should be aware of the pros and cons of consuming it regularly. Coffee and other caffeine products can provide many benefits but like the old saying goes ‘every rose has its thorns’. Before we get into that though, let’s get a little more acquainted with its origin.
Caffeine naturally comes from the seeds, fruits, and leaves of different plants such as coffee beans, cocoa beans, kola nuts, and tea leaves. There has been an outrageous amount of new caffeine-containing products on the market such as energy drinks, shots, aerosols, gums, teas, and supplements. All of them contain different amounts of caffeine. Caffeine can also be found in over-the-counter medicines such as pain relievers and cold medicine. The amount of caffeine in these products can be very unreliable and if you are getting it in the form of beverages at a coffee shop or market, the milligrams of caffeine can vary as much as 200-500 mg for the same beverage at different times. This makes it difficult to keep track of how much you are consuming. Besides human interference, things like the origin of the crop, processing type, temperature, and time for brewing all impact the caffeine concentration. With that being said, caffeine can be consumed safely for healthy adults and there are some real benefits to gain from this habit.
Coffee specifically has the most health components. It naturally contains caffeine, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins, minerals, nitrogenous compounds, and isoflavonoids. Outside of caffeine, coffee beans contain compounds such as chlorogenic acids, polyphenols, and other bioactive compounds (cafestol, kahweol) that offer many health benefits. Chlorogenic acid has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. Polyphenols act as antioxidants and improve blood flow. Researchers also say other health components in coffee still need to be researched as science progresses. Let’s review the already science-backed benefits to consuming coffee.
- Offers a quick energy boost
- Caffeine improves alertness, memory, and mental function. This effect happens for multiple reasons but mostly because caffeine molecules bind to receptors that block a molecule called adenosine from binding. Think of adenosine as a drowsy molecule
- Decreases the high risk of cardiovascular diseases, liver diseases, and type 2 diabetes. This has been a huge debate because it was previously thought that coffee can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease due to its lipid profile but this fear has been put aside by studies showing this molecule is significantly decreased when the coffee is filtered. Studies show 4-5 cups of coffee (300-400 mg) a day don’t affect arrhythmias or cardiovascular disease. On top of that, researchers found the chlorogenic acid in coffee helps to reduce insulin resistance and improve glucose tolerance
- Enhanced athletic performance through increased energy, cognition and muscle activation
- Reduced reaction time due to enhanced muscle activation and awareness
- Helps prevent Parkinson’s Disease in men
- Decreases constipation due to stimulating effect on the nervous system
Caffeine can be beneficial if taken regularly at a moderate level. Moderate levels are considered to be 3-4 cups a day (300-400 mg). However, the side effects of caffeine can’t be disregarded. If you overdo caffeine, you can have an overstimulated system that brings negative side effects ranging from minimal to fatal.
- Diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting due to the risk of being a gastric irritant
- Acid reflux
- Feelings of anxiety and jitters
- Muscle tremors, palpitations, and chest pain
- Risk of withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, nausea, fatigue, and irritability
- Acute high blood pressure. Although the rise is temporary, it can cause you to be more reactive to daily stress. If you already have high blood pressure, consuming large amounts of caffeine is not a great choice for your health
- Increased blood sugar
- The potential risk of decreasing bone density in long term use is accompanied by a low nutrient diet. However, this is seen more with sodas due to their high concentration of phosphates
- Potential Dehydrator. Large amounts of caffeine (250 mg +) can have short term diuretic effects (AKA urinating more) and can temporarily knock off fluid balance. However, studies show regular consumers of caffeine experience a diminished diuretic effect and the habit doesn’t interfere with hydration levels as long as you are still consuming enough water throughout the day
- Pregnancy loss and reduced fertility. Up until recent studies, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has advised pregnant or nursing women may safely consume up to 200mg caffeine a day (about 2 cups). However, when researchers looked more into past and current studies they recognized that even with limited amounts of caffeine can increase the risk for negative effects on the fetus or infant. Caffeine readily crosses the placenta and active caffeine can be found in newborn’s blood and hair. This becomes problematic because the fetus doesn’t have the liver enzymes necessary to metabolize caffeine yet. As the pregnancy gets further along, the mother's metabolism of caffeine slows, and the caffeine’s half-life in the body increases. For example, the usual half-life in the 1st trimester is 5 hours and increased to about 18 hours in the 38th week of pregnancy. This can increase stress hormones and increase the fetal heart rate leading to impaired breathing
- Newborns of caffeine-consuming mothers can also experience withdrawals and show symptoms of vomiting, disturbed sleep, irregular heartbeat, and breathing
Things To Be Cautious About:
- Hidden Caffeine content is a growing danger. The rise of caffeinated products on the market with varying amounts of caffeine can make the consumer unaware of how much they are consuming. Always look for labels if it is a pre-packaged product. If labels are not provided, ask the barista or market how many shots of milligrams are being used in your drink. A grande coffee at Starbucks can contain up to 550 mg of caffeine and some gourmet drinks can have 3 or more shots of espresso in them
- Soda sizes have gotten larger, the amount of caffeine in the beverages have also increased. For example, a 7-eleven big gulp cola contains about 190 mg of caffeine
- Decaf does not mean caffeine-free. Be aware that 10 cups of decaf is equal to approximately 2-3 cups of regular coffee
- Genetics can play a role in how sensitive you are to caffeine. There are genetic variations for fast and slow metabolizers of caffeine. This can dictate how long caffeine stays in your systems and can increase the risk of side effects
Generally, it is safe for healthy adults to consume moderate amounts (300 to 400 mg) of caffeine a day without negative health effects. Remember that it takes roughly 4-6 hours to metabolize caffeine. So, to reduce the risk of disturbed sleep it is best to consume caffeine in the morning or at least 6 hours before bedtime. If you are experiencing caffeine sensitivity, try to gradually reduce caffeine rather than cold-turkey to avoid feelings of withdrawal. If the symptoms are severe then reduce immediately and consult a doctor.