SciTech

Health Talk: Caffeine addiction follows same pattern as heroin addiction

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor

It’s midterm season again, and with these special two weeks come countless hours spent in the library trying to memorize facts, such as which Chinese dynasty most exalted Daoism or which conformation results in the least ring strain for cyclohexane. To partake in such fun studying activities, one may also need an intake of caffeinated beverages. Modern technology and lax FDA regulations have allowed a flood of new energy drinks to enter the market, so instead of simply drinking coffee, one can also drink energizers that promise insomnia for a full two days. However, one must proceed with caution to avoid becoming reliant on the core ingredient of these beverages: caffeine.

Caffeine addiction is a serious and often-ignored problem of many students who have rigorous work schedules or just like staying up playing video games. The withdrawal symptoms alone are cause for concern and can negatively alter one’s behavior, and according to www.medicinenet.com, substance dependence involves a build-up of the body’s tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, excess consumption, and failed efforts to cut down usage, among other factors.

Caffeine consumption has been around for thousands of years, although not in the forms we are used to today. Caffeine is a chemical found naturally in cocoa (between 30–50 milligrams (mg) per serving) and coffee beans and tea leaves (anywhere from 80–120 mg, depending on the type and brew intensity). In contrast, most sodas have the same amount of caffeine as cocoa, while energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster contain 160 mg for 16 ounces. In its purest form, caffeine is a white powder with a unique taste, and is often found in sodas such as Coke or root beer. The health website www.livestrong.com suggests that caffeine has been around since 3000 B.C., when the Chinese emperor Shen Nong discovered the art of brewing tea, and Aztecs drank coffee during the 1500s. Coffee became the drink of choice for British colonists in America when they refused to drink tea after the British passed the Tea Act in 1773.

According to www.medicinenet.com, the caffeine in these drinks is absorbed into the body’s nervous system after 30–45 minutes and is good for a three-hour spike in energy and mental alertness. There are receptors in the brain which bind with a chemical called adenosine, which causes drowsiness and induces sleep when active. The chemical makeup of caffeine is similar to that of adenosine, so when caffeine is absorbed into the body, it binds with the adenosine receptors to block this process from occurring. As a result, one’s brain operates more quickly and induces the pituitary gland to release epinephrine — more commonly known as adrenaline — which is a hormone and neurotransmitter known for the “fight-or-flight” effect on one’s body: increased heart rate and blood pressure, dilated pupils, and tightened muscles according to www.howstuffworks.com. There is also an increase in dopamine, a hormone known for stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain. These effects explain why one often feels awake but also nervous or anxious after consuming caffeine. After repeated consumption of caffeine, one’s body begins to add more adenosine receptors to compensate; one will require more and more caffeine intake to achieve the same alertness and concentration. This is the body’s way of building a tolerance, and the first step to becoming a caffeine addict.

After the body has processed the caffeine and the effects wear off, usually after six hours, one may begin to experience withdrawal symptoms, which include fatigue, dizziness, headaches and a sour mood. Caffeine is also a diuretic, meaning one will need to urinate more frequently, which results in dehydration.

Many experts have compared caffeine addiction to substance abuse. After all, caffeine binds to receptors in the brain to create an artificial reaction and engineer various chemical releases; drugs such as heroin or cocaine follow the same process. However, to overdose on caffeine, one will need to consume around 100 cups of coffee in a single day, a feat which seems humanly impossible. Although an article from howstuffworks.com suggests that around 90 percent of adults consume a caffeinated beverage every day, one must also consider the health ramifications in the short run.

Although coffee can have negative short-term side effects, an 18-year study done by Harvard University in 2001 suggests that daily coffee consumption (generally black, with little to no cream or sugar) decreases one’s risk of diabetes by approximately 9 percent. After compiling results from over 130,000 volunteers, Harvard researchers have concluded that there are no serious health effects in the long run. Harvard’s website suggests, however, to not disregard all caution for caffeine intake: “Often people think of coffee just as a vehicle for caffeine. But it’s actually a very complex beverage with hundreds and hundreds of different compounds in it. Since coffee contains so many different compounds, drinking coffee can lead to very diverse health outcomes.”

Although caffeine can be alluring to the struggling college student by offering powers of beating drowsiness and increasing mental acuity, one should not become dependent on such a drug. For those who wish to cut down their consumption, the best way is to slowly decrease usage and have the willpower to use alternative methods of finishing work.