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What Do You Mean, Addicted? It's Only My Fourth Cup! - The Truth About Caffeine

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You wake up, stumble out of bed, and groggily make your way to the kitchen, hoping you don't fall asleep while walking down the stairs... and if you're lucky, you'll have enough motor control to wait 5 minutes for your coffee to percolate, or even better, you might have a coffee maker with a timer. Talk about bliss!

But as you pour yourself a mug of what seems like heavenly nectar in the morning, take your first sip, and wait for the caffeine to kick in, have your ever asked yourself: what exactly IS this stuff I'm putting into my body? And for that matter, why does it give me such a rush?

Essentially, when you knock back that morning coffee... and afternoon coffee... and late afternoon coffee... you're taking drugs to give yourself a high. While that sounds somewhat disconcerting, the truth is that caffeine is a drug - and an addictive one, at that. Sure, it may not be as immediately dangerous as other addictive drugs, but that sense of alertness you get after your morning java comes from a reaction in your central nervous system to the stimulants found in your cup.

The Science of Caffeine

Scientifically speaking, the caffeine in your coffee, tea, or even can of Coke, is a plant-based alkaloid found naturally in organic materials such as cocoa beans, tea leaves, guarana, kola nuts and coffee beans. What is more, caffeine may also disguise itself under the names coffeine, mateine, theine, guaranine, or methyltheobromine.

In its natural form, caffeine is a bitter, white powder - which is why most caffeinated beverages require copious amounts of sugar or sweetener to make them tolerable to the human palate. So, why isn't coffee or tea white? The powder only results from an extraction of the drug from the plant source, but if you've ever tried to drink black coffee, you've probably experienced the bitter taste of caffeine when it's undiluted with sugar. Products such as caffeine stimulant pills and some painkillers actually contain pure caffeine, which explains their bitter taste.

Although you ingest caffeine to wake up, plants produce caffeine as a natural pesticide against potential bugs and insects looking for food: when the insects take a bite out of the plant, the caffeine works against their natural physiology to over-stimulate, paralyze and then kill the pests. Almost makes you think twice about reaching for that second cup...

How Caffeine Works

When you take a sip of your caffeinated drink of choice, the chemical properties of the drug are strong enough to evoke an almost immediate reaction inside your body. As the caffeine stimulates your central nervous system, your heart rate will increase and you probably have an increased sense of alertness and awareness. In fact, in addition to elevating your mood and energy level, several scientific studies have recently shown that moderate amounts of caffeine will actually increase your short-term memory recall.

Although typically harmless in moderation, the problem arises when caffeine is taken in high or concentrated doses. Too much caffeine is known to cause dizziness, anxiety, headaches, and heart palpitations. Since the effects of caffeine generally remain in your system for up to six hours, if ingested late in the evening, caffeine may affect regular sleep patterns and lead to problematic conditions such as insomnia.

Like any drug, the amount of sensitivity someone has to caffeine will vary between individuals, and for those who consume caffeine regularly, the body will build up a natural tolerance in correlation to the amount ingested on a daily basis. However, this needs to be carefully considered if you find yourself suddenly drinking an increasing amount of coffee or tea - once your body develops a tolerance, you'll need more to be able to feel the same results. In short, the more caffeine you regularly consume, the more your body will need to feel that same sense of alertness. That's where the danger of addiction comes in!

Another effect of caffeine is its diuretic properties - namely, the more caffeine you take in, the more you'll feel the need to urinate. Health experts recommend drinking three cups of water for every one cup of coffee, in order to counteract the dehydrating effects of the drug.

Tasty Moderation

When taken in moderation, caffeine can actually be a beneficial part of your daily routine. Doctors recommend no more than around 100 milligrams of caffeine on a daily basis, which is basically the equivalent of one full-strength espresso.

The downside is that caffeine users who suddenly stop taking caffeine may actually experience symptoms of withdrawal: headaches, nausea, irritability, and in extreme cases, depression. Since caffeine is a drug, if you're considering cutting back, be sure to do so incrementally.

As odd as it may seem that a cup or two of coffee, some tea, or a daily can of Coke may benefit your sense of well-being, the key is to be aware of what it is you're putting into your body. Like any over-the-counter drug taken in moderation, caffeine can be a good thing! And knowing that can make your morning cup 'o joe taste all the better.

For more information see Caffeine Effects on the Human Body.


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