Now that designer coffee, hip caffeinated energy drinks and exotically flavoured teas are quickly becoming the hallmarks of urban consumerism, the downside of increasing caffeine consumption is easy to dismiss.

When I grew up in the ’60s, caffeine was frowned upon for those under sixteen; my parents frequently told me that “I had to wait until I got older” before I was allowed to have a coffee, yet just about everybody smoked and I was allowed to start smoking when I was 14, a ridiculous habit I kicked at 27. A different story today, my 15 year old daughter loves nothing more than a large energy drink, yet smokers disgust her and suddenly it has become very “uncool” and disgusting to smoke, yet it is fine to consume vast amounts of caffeine on a daily basis. How the times are a changing.

Let me tell you a bit about caffeine, how it can affect you and the upside as well as the downside. I have thrown a few real case histories in to illustrate my point as well.

Before we go any further, relax, this article is not out to persuade you to give up coffee or tea. It is intended to help you become aware of how caffeine affects your health. I’ve heard it said that everything enjoyable is either “illegal, immoral or fattening” – well, caffeine is none of these. But you say: “ Eric, coffee smells so good, it tastes so good and it gives you such a boost, how can it not be good for you”, well it can be, but it comes at a cost, there  always seems to be that downside to something that can make you feel so up.

Typically, one cup of brewed coffee will give you about 100mg of caffeine, whilst the equivalent amount of tea has between 40-45mg. A can of fizzy cola drink has about 45mg, whilst a chocolate bar has 8mg (although it has other chemicals which react with the caffeine to give you a bigger buzz than you would expect from this amount of caffeine). Incredibly, the energy drinks that kids consume today leaves all the conventional caffeine products for dead – some can contain a whopping 200 mg of caffeine in just a 60ml serve. A less obvious source of caffeine are some pharmaceutical drugs, such as headache preparations, diuretics and slimming pills.

The upside is that one to two cups a day can sharpen your concentration and energy levels, and has been purported to even prevent some forms of cancer due to the polyphenol content, but too much can go the other way and cause some cancers to develop as well. The caffeine and theobromine content of coffee can help asthmatics by relaxing the bronchial tubes, and those with underactive tummies (hypochlorhydria) are aided by coffee, but if you tummy is quite acid, refrain from coffee and tea as you will only make matters worse. So you see, a little is ok and a lot is not ok.

Caffeine and kids

University of South Australia researchers are calling for parents and clinicians to take stock of children’s diets following new research that shows a causal relationship between primary-aged children’s caffeine intake, poor sleep and difficult daytime behaviour.

The study examined the relationship between caffeine consumption, sleep, and daytime behaviour in Australian children aged 8-12 years, seeking to determine the average caffeine intake, the source of caffeine consumption, and the impact it had on children throughout the day.

Led by UniSA’s Dr Millie Watson, the research found 87 per cent of Australian primary-aged children had consumed caffeine throughout their weekly diets.

The study also found that children who consumed significantly more caffeine, slept far fewer hours (7-8 hours per night) than those who had consumed less caffeine (sleeping 9-11 hours per night).

“When children suffer from broken or reduced sleep, it increases their propensity for internalising behaviours, such as anxiety, depression and social withdrawal,” Dr Watson says.

We’re not saying caffeine alone is responsible for poor sleep and challenging behaviours in children, but it is a proven key contributor.

“So, before parents and clinicians turn to medications to calm or control children’s sleep or behaviours, perhaps the first step is to take check of their caffeine intake – it may just be the anomaly you’re looking for.”

Energy Drinks

A popular drink containing more than twice as much caffeine as the average flat white is the latest weapon in the energy drinks war. A NZ company launched an “energy product” in May 2009 with the company’s director predicting that the potential market turnover as much as $1 billion a year. The energy drink market in USA has exceeded $3 billion a year. The trend has been the source of growing concern among health researchers and school officials.

Around the world, energy drinks have been linked with reports of nausea, abnormal heart rhythms and emergency room visits.

Energy drink manufacturers have already supersized cans and raised caffeine contents right up to their maximum legal limit in a bid to maintain their share of this highly competitive market. But the moves have raised concern among teachers and dieticians about the effects of such drinks on children. What is stunning is that a 60 ml shot of a popular energy “hit” at the supermarket counter can contain 200mg of caffeine and is being marketed as “a dietary supplement”, whilst the average flat white contains 80-100mg. Most energy drinks are classed as “formulated caffeinated beverages” and limited to 320mg of caffeine per litre by the NZFSA (New Zealand Food Standard Authority).

I personally have grave concerns about children’s brain and nervous system development, how caffeine affects their developing bodies, and have seen the results first hand in the clinic, with parents calling or emailing me about the behavioural changes seen in teens hooked on caffeine.

A good friend of mine developed a high quality mobile water purification unit (reverse osmosis) some years ago and gave one to a leading high school in the North Island on loan for a few months. The principal was delighted, with reports from teachers that nearly all the children were queuing up to refill their water bottles for free with the lovely pure water and were not having to purchase cola drinks from the vending machine in the canteen. Absenteeism was down, the children were concentrating better and were even displaying less rowdy behaviour.

After about six weeks however, the major cola company called on the principal to ask for the machine to be removed or legal proceedings would follow as their sales were down significantly. Within weeks the children were back to drinking the fizzy black poison once again, absenteeism was up, children were less able to concentrate in the classroom and fights and rowdy behaviour ruled the playground once again.

If we load children up with a drug that has a powerful effect on their nervous system how can we expect anything but? Does you child drink an energy drink? Then learn to say “NO” to energy drinks, I have always classified fizzy drinks as “liquid poisons” at home, and my children only drink water or dilute fruit juices like I did as a child. I have preached for years about the perils of rotten teeth, fat bellies and wrecked tummies and digestive systems resulting from these highly refined sugar laden beverages. That is not to say that they never consume a fizzy drink, they have become aware that regular and daily consumption of these “drinks” results in the eventual decline in health. Sorry folks, I’d rather you have a cup of good quality coffee than a fizzy drink any day, these carbonated drinks have absolutely no place in a health conscious person’s diet.

Coffee

Coffee has become almost synonymous with caffeine and much of the research about the effects of caffeine have focused on coffee. The rate of caffeine consumption in Australia and NZ has tripled since the 60’s, and this is because we now consume much more coffee than ever, and in addition get our caffeine from a much wider range of products.

The consumption of caffeine-containing soft drinks has more than doubled in this time as well, adding to this concern are the growing number of young people who are acquiring a taste for caffeine. The range of caffeinated drinks, foods and snacks available to the consumer is truly staggering. I suppose the more stressed and fatigued we have come as a society in the 21st century, the more we are looking for that lift and stimulation offered by the widely available and acceptable drug called caffeine.

Fatigue and coffee go hand in hand, and I have seen so many fatigued patients in the clinic for many years now who could not imaging giving up their morning cup. The absolute explosion of coffee shops and coffee stalls everywhere you look today around the developed world is a clear example of wherever there is a strong demand for a product or a service, a need will be supplied that can make a quick dollar.

People with adrenal fatigue and burn-out often crave coffee, tea, cola or energy drinks because of the stimulatory effect of caffeine. The problem is that caffeine often over stimulates the stress and energy producing mechanisms of the body, leading to further fatigue when the caffeine wears off. Therefore, many women I see complaining of fatigue get through the day by kicking their adrenal glands into action every three to four hours by drinking several cups of coffee or tea daily or by combining coffee, sweets and chocolates (containing caffeine).

Teenagers don’t need coffee, they have their own rocket fuel to give them their get up and go and will typically consume one or several cans of an energy drink daily along with two minute noodles, snack bars and sweets as their lives have also become increasingly hectic trying to cope with all the social pressures of cell phone texting and chatting and late night computer gaming. One parent told me that her daughter sent over 3,000 texts in one month, that is more than 100 texts per day.

As a teenager in the ’70s, I would go to bed at the “sensible” time of eight thirty, because the adult TV programs would come on and there were simply no other forms of entertainment or stimulation. Coffee, alcohol and the telephone belonged to realm of the adults, And computers? Well, they were for the “brainy people” with university degrees.

I don’t think our bodies and brains have simply evolved fast enough to keep up with the extreme technological demands placed on them, we have become over stimulated and place unbelievable expectations on ourselves and others today. Twenty years ago you would respond to a fax in a day or so with your business, whereas today if you don’t reply to somebody’s email within the hour it is frowned upon! Is it any wonder that coffee, tea or energy drinks laden with caffeine have literally become the oil which lubricates an average person’s nervous system today?

Tell me the truth, how many people in your office don’t drink coffee or tea or have a wine or beer when they go home.

Caffeine affects your health in many ways

It surprises me how many health care professionals make many dietary and lifestyle recommendations for their patients: “Mrs. Smith, I would like you to take this pill or that herb, eat this food and go on this diet, etc”, but fail to curb or restrict the patient’s intake of caffeine. For example, coffee seems to worsen the symptoms of persons with high blood pressure; I have seen the coffee/high blood pressure link in several of my patients over the years, particularly coffee drinkers on blood pressure medications with poor anti-hypertensive control.

Have you told your doctor, who placed you on a Beta blocker or other heart drug, that you drink coffee? I think you should. Because now you are taking a prescribed drug to regulate your BP, and in addition are drinking a drug every day which potentially “up regulates” your heart’s functioning.

William’s high blood pressure

Bill (not his real name) is a 62yr old sheep farmer from Hawke’s Bay who has been seeing me for the past two years to get his blood pressure under control with natural medicine.

His doctor has had him on several different heart medications but has had to keep changing the prescriptions because he felt nauseous, tired, developed increasing palpitations and became very disillusioned with his doctor visits. I placed him on various herbs and supplements as well as a diet change but still could not help him regulate his BP.

When I questioned Bill about his dietary and lifestyle habits all seemed above board. We tried magnesium, Omega3, Taurine, COQ10, and every trick in the book, all to no avail. Then one day his wife came in and sat with him during his consultation. I asked Mary to tell me about a typical day in Bill’s life, and the first thing she told me that for many years he had a freshly brewed pot of coffee all to himself before going out to check on the sheep.

We quickly bumped that habit on the head, but Bill suffered terribly with headaches for a whole week after he stopped coffee which shows you how he was addicted and dependent of caffeine which was no doubt underpinning his blood pressure. His BP is now a nice 130/72, which is a far cry from the uncontrollable 170/90 which he was averaging for several years, and – he is only taking Omega3.

Do you have high blood pressure and drink coffee every day? Do you take drugs to control your BP and drink coffee? Then STOP all caffeine for one month and tell me how your blood pressure is, I’ll bet there is a reduction.

And, always let your doctor know.

Janet’s anxiety and insomnia

Janet (not her real name) is 38yrs old and has suffered from anxiety and sleeping problems for most of her adult life. She also runs a highly successful and profitable coffee roasting and cafe business with her husband. Janet is a human dynamo and somehow finds the time to go to the gym most mornings, manage several café outlets and yet be a mum to two young children and a wife to John her new husband.

Janet is very stressed and continually exhausted as she races from one café to another and then has to drop the kids off and pick them up after daycare, cooks dinner, then flops exhausted into bed, and then can’t sleep as her mind races. She is quite irritable and snappy with her staff and husband, which is what I typically find in those who consume several strong brewed coffees a day.

Janet cried as she mentioned to me that she has no libido and hates her life inspite of the major success of her business. She had seen her GP who mentioned the word “depression”, but when she mentioned palpitations he also recommended that she visit a cardiologist, and recommended her to take 20mg of Fluoxetine daily (Prozac) which she refused. That is when she came to see me.

I explained that the palpitations were caused from all that adrenalin which her body was producing in response to the caffeine and that it was highly unlikely there were any “heart problems”. Her GP did not even ask if she drank coffee.

It worked out that Janet was consuming between seven to ten cups of strong black coffee per day, in addition to the rum and coke she was having a few nights a week and her regular chocolate fix as well. You can imagine how all this caffeine adds up to a sizeable amount daily, up to an incredible 1000 milligrams per day.

Janet was suffering from a huge caffeine overload, as we as several key deficiencies including B Vitamins, magnesium, iron, zinc and the important amino acid tyrosine. I have no doubt in Janet’s case that her huge caffeine load would have been lowering her body’s levels of nor-adrenalin.

Nor-adrenalin is a neurotransmitter (brain hormone) which plays a critical role in regulating your moods, memory and behaviour and in addition has been found to be the brain’s own natural anti–depressant. Stress causes a major depletion of the body’s reserves of nor-adrenaline and paradoxically this is when most people increase their caffeine intake, further lowering their nor-adrenalin levels.

After many discussions with Janet and John, I persuaded them to get a manager in place and for Janet to take a back seat in the business. The change in Janet has been remarkable, her PMS, anxiety, depression, insomnia and irritability are all gone. And so is her coffee!

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Eric Bakker is the clinical director of The Naturopaths and holds a Bachelor Degree of Science majoring in Complementary Health Care, as well as separate diploma qualifications in Naturopathy, Herbal Medicine and Homeopathy. Eric has 20 years clinical experience in natural medicine, and received post-graduate natural medicine training in Australia, India, America as well as New Zealand. Eric has four children and lives in the sunny Hawkes Bay

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