(printer-friendly version)

Health alert: Kicking the caffeine habit 5/12
(This article is adapted from the May 2012 ShopSmart magazine.)

Part one: Kicking the caffeine habit | Part two: Where caffeine hides

You may perk up just at the thought of your morning joe, but maybe you also feel guilty about downing all of that caffeine. Well, you can relax. Unless you’re knocking back coffee by the potful, you might not need to kick your caffeine habit.

In addition to making you feel more alert, moderate caffeine intake can actually improve your mental and physical performance, research shows. Caffeine might improve your mood, too. Up to 300 milligrams of caffeine daily is safe for many healthy adults. That’s about what you’ll find in three cups of regular coffee. But some people should use extra caution.

Who should be careful

People with coronary heart disease should have no more than 200 milligrams of caffeine a day, and they should wait to exercise for at least 5 hours after consuming any. That’s because caffeine might reduce blood flow to the heart, which could increase the risk of dizziness, fainting, and heart problems in people whose hearts are already compromised by disease.

Osteoporosis sufferers should talk to their doctor about whether caffeine is safe, especially if they take the bone-building drug alendronate (Fosamax, Fosamax Plus D, and generics) because caffeine can make it less effective.

Pregnant women should consume less than 200 milligrams daily. Higher doses are linked to low birth weights in babies. One study found that drinking more than 5 cups of coffee daily increased the risk of spontaneous abortion.

People with anxiety, heart palpitations, tremors, headaches, or sleeplessness might want to cut back on caffeine to see whether it helps reduce their symptoms.

Young children and teens should avoid consuming caffeine, which has been linked to a number of harmful health effects in children, including effects on the developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems, according to a June 2011 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Yet hyper-caffeinated beverages --with names like Amp, Monster, Red Bull, and Rockstar -- are marketed to appeal to kids and teens and some can contain more than 3 times as much caffeine per serving as colas. In general, the Academy recommends that caffeine-containing beverages, including soda, be avoided.

How much caffeine?

Many products are loaded with caffeine, but manufacturers don't have to disclose the amount -- just its presence, and only if it's added as in colas or energy drinks. Caffeine that occurs naturally in chocolate, tea, or in botanical ingredients (such as guarana in energy drinks) doesn’t have to be listed.

You might think you’re getting about the same amount in any comparable size cup of coffee, no matter what, but coffee shop offerings vary widely, and so do other similar products. (See Part two: Where caffeine hides.) In fact, some cups have 70 percent more caffeine than others of the same size.

How to cut back?

It’s tough to kick the caffeine habit but some experts say it isn’t the same thing as addiction. Still, you are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms, such as headache and tiredness if you stop cold turkey.

To cut back without feeling miserable, do it slowly. If you’re a coffee drinker, swap part of your regular brew for decaf and gradually increase the decaf. ( Note: “decaf” doesn’t always mean zero caffeine.)

Try replacing highly caffeinated drinks with lower-caf tea. Another method: Order iced coffee in the same size as your regular cup. The more ice, the less caffeine.

Blame your genes

According to recent analyses of the human genome, caffeine consumption is linked to two genes—one that governs the desire to consume caffeine and one that determines how it’s metabolized. That’s probably why some people crave caffeine more than others or can drink coffee after dinner and sleep like a baby.

Related links

Health alert: Where caffeine hides—Part two. 5/12

Waking up to caffeine. 10/11

Best organic, fair trade coffee. 8/11

Part one: Kicking the caffeine habit | Part two: Where caffeine hides

Copyright © 2003-2012 by Consumers Union of United States., Inc., 101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers, NY 10703, a nonprofit organization. No downloading, transmission, photocopying, or commercial use permitted. Visit www.GreenerChoices.org.