Family health

The coffee fix

Read on to find out the latest about everyone’s favourite stimulant

By Hilary Davidson
The coffee fix

Kick-starting your morning with a cup of coffee seems like a logical idea — it’s not like you can cram more hours in the day to catch up on sleep. And let’s face it: If you’ve been up most of the night with a colicky baby, that much-loved morning cuppa might seem like your best friend. But according to a host of headlines, there’s trouble brewing in our love affair with caffeine.

The buzz about your buzz

What is it about caffeine that gives sleepy mommies that much-needed alertness? Caffeine is a mild stimulant found in several plants, including the common coffee plant, the tea bush, cocoa, kola nuts and guarana berries. The jolt you get from your java is thanks to the way caffeine blocks adenosine, a chemical that helps your poor, tired body wind down for sleep.

The good news

While there’s been a lot of talk around coffee klatches about the issue of “cumulative caffeine,” don’t fret. “The only cumulative effect known so far is that you develop a tolerance for it,” says James Hammond, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.

More caffeine myth busting: There is no evidence that it causes fibrocystic breast disease. Unless you’re guzzling upward of 10 cups of coffee a day, it won’t dehydrate you. Nor will it cause osteoporosis, so long as you consume enough calcium and vitamin D. Caffeine even has its upsides — and nowhere near as many downsides as the doom-and-gloomers would have you think:

  • Cancer concerns Caffeine doesn’t cause cancer, in spite of what you’ve heard in the media. “There are compounds in coffee and tea that may actually reduce the risk of certain cancers,” says Ahmed El-Sohemy, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.
  • Mood fixer Caffeine does make you more alert and it can boost your mood — so if you feel like a grouch before you get your morning coffee, you have a good reason.
  • Parkinson’s protector Research shows that caffeine may protect against Parkinson’s disease. Doctors aren’t at the point of suggesting that people start drinking coffee to prevent the disease, but it’s an argument against giving up your daily Tim Hortons habit.

The bad news

Caffeine does have a dark side, though. Too much can make you jittery and anxious. Plus, even if you’re drinking what Health Canada considers a safe amount, there are some risks:

  • Insomnia alert Caffeine keeps you awake, so naturally it can cause insomnia. There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when you should cut off your caffeine intake to guarantee a good night’s sleep, but there’s a pretty good argument for most people to skip that post-dinner coffee. The important factor here is your individual caffeine tolerance.
  • Nursing concerns While adults can consume caffeine safely, infants have a very low tolerance for the stuff. The risk to infants ranges from increased wakefulness to poor feeding. Nursing moms should limit themselves to two cups a day.
  • Heart health Consuming caffeine won’t increase the risk of a heart attack for most people, but an ongoing study at the universities of Toronto and Harvard has shown that people who metabolize caffeine slowly are at greater risk for heart attacks. What’s slowly? A cup of coffee that takes the average person three to 10 hours to kick out of her system will stay with a slow metabolizer for 12 to 24 hours. And that, according to El-Sohemy, who worked on the study, is more likely to damage your cardiovascular system. How well your body handles caffeine is partly genetic, but other factors — like use of oral contraceptives, which slow your body’s ability to metabolize caffeine — are also in play.

How much is too much?

According to Health Canada, women planning to become pregnant should consume no more than 300 mg of caffeine per day (although that number is being questioned; see Pregnant Pause). Other adults can get away with 400 mg. For the lowdown on how much jolt you’re getting, see How Much Kick Is in Your Cup?

Breaking the habit

Perhaps you feel it’s time you cut back caffeine or cut it out completely. Take heart: Doing so may be easier than you think. Consuming less can be as simple as switching beans. “Most people have no idea that bold coffee has less caffeine than mild coffee,” says Hammond. “Some people choose mild because they think it contains less caffeine.” While it takes only a week to become dependent on caffeine, it also takes just a week or two to say sayonara to the stimulant. “The good news is that there are no long-term effects from caffeine consumption,” says Hammond, but chances are good that you’ll have headaches and feel restless for about a week.

Pregnant pause

Because no one knows how much caffeine is safe during pregnancy, many doctors urge women to steer clear of it altogether. Health Canada’s recommendation of no more than 300 mg of caffeine per day has recently been questioned by a major British study, which found that as little as 200 mg of caffeine per day could result in miscarriage or low birth weight.

How much kick is in your cup?

Coffee, Tim Hortons 295 mL (medium): 100 mg caffeine
Coffee, Starbucks 354 mL (tall): 240 mg*
Coffee, instant decaffeinated 237 mL: 5 mg
Coffee, espresso 30 mL: 30–50 mg
Tea, average blend 237 mL: 43 mg
Tea, green 237 mL: 30 mg
Cola, diet or regular 355 mL (1 can): 36–50 mg
Red Bull energy drink 250 mL (1 can): 80 mg
Milk chocolate 28 g: 7 mg
Sweet chocolate 28 g: 19 mg
*Average caffeine content. Bold blends have less caffeine than mild ones.

This article was originally published on May 11, 2009

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