Caffeine, America’s drug of choice

Is caffeine harmful? UVU students and professionals weigh in on the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world and its effects on the brain and body.

Caffeine is the world's most commonly abused psychoactive drug. Image by UVU Wellness, used with permission.

“Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world,” claimed JW Daly and others in “Is Caffeine Addictive?”. This should come as no surprise, since the Washington Daily News reported that “[m]ore than half of all American adults consume more than 300 mg of caffeine every day.”

As a stimulant, caffeine increases brain activity and nervous system functions, making individuals feel refreshed and focused — the perfect cocktail for stressed college students. In fact, when asked about caffeine, several UVU students weighed in on the matter.

Ariel Clark, a senior majoring in public health said, “I get addicted to caffeine very quickly! I use it on my busiest days. It definitely pushes me to finish the day strong. Days without it aren’t as productive. I try to limit it to 1-2 times a week.  If I do more than that I have a big dip of energy coming off of it.” 

Hanna Taylor, a senior majoring in public health, also mentioned having an affinity towards caffeine. “I drink it 1-2 times a day,” she said. “I depend on it to keep me energized, but I also know I won’t die without it.” 

Although many students enjoy caffeine for its benefits, not all students share the same habit.

“I no longer drink caffeine!” exclaimed Gabrielle Viana, a sophomore majoring in healthcare administration.“ I used to have it every day, and would have 4-5 cups of coffee to keep me awake. I found that it worsened my anxiety and gave me migraines galore! So I quit.” Vianna later mentioned that she had quickly become addicted to caffeine and that it was hard to stop drinking it.  

Vianna’s response invokes an important question. What does caffeine do to the brain? According to neuroscientist and sleep specialist, Matthew Walker, caffeine binds to the adenosine receptors, blocking them from signaling to the brain how tired you are, and can remain for up to 12 hours. This means that six hours after drinking a caffeinated beverage, half of the caffeine is still present in your body.

In addition to blocking sleep receptors, caffeine can also cause energy spikes and crashes. Dr. Vincent M. Pedre, a board-certified Internist, explains that “once your body has metabolized … caffeine and its effects wear off … adenosine floods the brain receptors and tells your brain that it’s sleepy time, even if it’s in the middle of the afternoon.” To avoid this, people may drink more caffeine as soon as they start to feel tired again, repeating the cycle and leading to unpredictable spikes and crashes.

Caffeine, like many other drugs, has benefits and drawbacks. Medical News Today explained that when caffeine is ingested in moderate amounts, it can boost the flow of dopamine in the brain and in some cases, reduce the risk of depression. The stimulating effects of caffeine can cause alertness right away; however, too much caffeine can cause a jittery or anxious feeling, especially if individuals have existing anxiety or panic disorders. Consumers are also warned that drinking more than the recommended amount of caffeine may cause it to lose its alerting effect, and cause severe disturbances to the heart and nervous system.

So how much caffeine is safe to consume every day? According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), up to 400 mg per day is considered a safe moderate intake for healthy adults. However, people’s sensitivity to caffeine varies depending on genetics or other health factors.  

Next time students reach for their caffeinated drink of choice, they should think about how much they have already consumed and remember that moderation is the key.

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