Caffeine caution – even a little may be enough to cause upset in the brain

For me, eating healthily doesn’t necessarily mean giving up all our little treats. My personal dietary vice is coffee, and I indulge myself with a cafetière of organic Guatemalan brew most mornings. From a purist’s point of view, drinking coffee is nutritional heresy: there’s a stack of research linking caffeine consumption with all manner of health issues including heart rhythm irregularities, high blood pressure and insomnia. However, I have always consoled myself in the fact that the science shows it generally requires more than the odd cup or two of coffee to bring on these sort of problems. Besides, I wouldn’t want to miss out on the caffeine-induced jolt that helps get my day off to a rip-roaring start.

I generally like to be the bearer of glad tidings, and this week resolved to dig out the research on the energy and mood-enhancing effects of caffeine. I was heartened to find that there is indeed good evidence for caffeine’s stimulant effects on both the body and mind. In experimental studies, caffeine increases energy and alertness, and it has been proven to be useful for counteracting flagging energy levels. Cheap, legal and freely available to all, caffeine does seem at face value to be the ideal pick-me-up. Much to my dismay, however, a closer look at the research reveals that caffeine has a somewhat darker side.

While caffeine may enliven us when it’s whooshing around our blood stream, trouble can start when levels start to plummet. Caffeine withdrawal is a recognised phenomenon characterised by undesirable symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety and headache. While I had always imagined that these problems were only relevant to the dozen-cup-a-day brigade, it appears I have been labouring under an illusion. Contrary to popular opinion, the amount of caffeine to give rise to problems with withdrawal can be surprisingly moderate. Withdrawal from daily intakes as low as 2 – 3 cups of coffee have been shown to cause significant problems with anxiety, fatigue and headache. Research also shows that we don’t need to go cold turkey for too long before the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal kick in. In one study, habitual coffee drinkers unknowingly deprived of caffeine for just four hours. The science suggests that commonplace habit of loading up on caffeine during the day puts us at a very real risk of caffeine withdrawal by the next morning. No wonder many of us fall prey to the seductive charms of coffee or tea in the morning.

With growing recognition of caffeine withdrawal, scientists are beginning to question whether caffeine’s energy boosting effects are merely a chemical confidence trick. Some researchers argue that the feel-good effects of caffeine are really nothing more than a sense of relief that comes when the body is delivered from caffeine withdrawal. In other words, for habitual consumers, a caffeine fix essentially returns the body to the state it would have been in if it had not had caffeine in the first place. Paradoxically, it seems that by eschewing caffeine we can enjoy its mood and energy boosting benefits – all day long.

If you’re tempted to cut down on caffeine, I suggest opting for soft targets such as instant and machine delivered coffee and tea first. A useful trick is to take a cup of such stuff and imagine you are drinking it for the very first time. You might be surprised what an affront it is to your taste buds it is. I’m convinced that the major driving force behind our drinking of crappola coffee and tea is simply habit, and most people find they can kiss goodbye to much of it without too much heartache. If complete abstinence from caffeine is your preference, you can expect any withdrawal symptoms to settle in about a week.

So, what of the alternatives? Naturally caffeine-free herb and fruit teas are a good choice. However, for those who find these a little insipid and not altogether satisfying, there are other options. Rooibosch (Redbush) tea bares more than a passing resemblance to regular tea but contains no caffeine. Decaffeinated coffee or tea, though, turns out for many to be a palatable compromise. Some decaffeination processes use suspect chemicals that may come into direct contact with the coffee beans. To be on the safe side, it might be just as well to opt for more naturally decaffeinated brews. Look for labels that state the product is decaffeinated using the ‘Swiss water’ or ‘carbon dioxide’ method. Personally, I feel better for having recently taken the decaf route. Mind you, I’m keeping some high-octane stuff in the cupboard in case of emergencies.

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