The Unhealthy Caffeine Fix
Tea and coffee are the major sources of caffeine in our diet, but there are significant amounts to be found in less likely foods such as cocoa, chocolate bars, drinking chocolate, cola, sports drinks, some desserts and ice creams. Caffeine is also important ingredient in some cold and pain relief medications. Without doubt, caffeine acts as a stimulant, which can stave off fatigue and enhance mental performance when we are feeling sluggish. It stimulates the heart, open the airways and can even aid digestion by stimulating gastric juices. However, there is another side to this most acceptable of drugs.
Stress And Stimulation
Caffeine acts like stress on the body, causing the physical symptoms of the ‘flight or fight’ response. It stimulates the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol which, in turn, cause the liver to break down its store of glycogen and release it as glucose into the bloodstream. In response, the pancreas releases insulin, which helps deposit the blood glucose into the body cells. As calcium is needed to increase the heart rate, improve muscle contraction and thicken the blood, this mineral is mobilized from the bones. In short, the body prepares for action. The problem is that when we drink or eat caffeine, we are rarely preparing for any physical action. We are usually sitting down, eating and drinking, or having a cup of tea, coffee or cola at our desks to keep us going. In effect, the body has responded to a false alarm but the physical results of this state of alert remain the same.
If caffeine were the only stressor in our lives then perhaps it would be less of a problem. However, the combination of stressors we all live with can make caffeine detrimental to our health.
How Much Is Too Much?
Medical experts advise us to drink no more than six cups of tea or coffee a day. However, many nutritionists believe this is far too much and it is certainly best for those with high blood pressure, circulatory problems and kidney disease to try quitting caffeine intake altogether. People who are trying to conceive should try to restrict their intake to one cup of coffee a day, while pregnant women and breast feeding mothers can also benefit from restricted intake. Caffeine can be transferred to babies whilst they are still in the womb and it is not unknown for them to have withdrawal symptoms after birth.
Unfortunately, caffeine is habit forming and can become addictive. The more we rely on caffeine, the more we end up needing it. Our adrenal glands can become desensitized to caffeine and the amount that would once have been a pick-me-up is no longer effective. But even before the adrenal glands become desensitized, it is common to experience swings in mood and energy levels. The sudden rise in insulin which results from an intake of caffeine can deprive the brain of glucose, leading to irritability, tension, confusion, dizziness, headaches and cravings for more caffeine or sugary foods, reinforcing the addictive cycle. Some people experience sleep difficulties as a result of this constant see-sawing. Others find it difficult to get going in the morning until they’ve had their first caffeine fix.
Easing Up On Caffeine
If you have relied on caffeine for some time, whether it’s fresh coffee to pick you up or a bar of chocolate when you are feeling low, cutting down or giving it up can initially make you feel sluggish and tired. Some people experience withdrawal symptoms, including severe headaches, muscles aches and irritability.
The best way to adjust to having less caffeine is to reduce your intake over a period of weeks. Giving it up completely and going cold turkey is often successful, but it can be an uncomfortable experience. Researchers have found that the detoxification rates of similarly healthy adults can vary by as much as 500%, so a more measured approach to cutting down could be easier on you and your body.
It can help to include cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprout in your diet as these vegetables all contain chemicals that help the liver detoxify. Vitamin C found in plentiful supply in most fruit and vegetables, and Vitamin B1 and B3 found in wholegrains, seeds, nuts, vegetables, beans, lentils, eggs and milk also help to remove damaging toxins. Ensuring you have a healthy diet, drinking 1.5 to 2 liters of water a day, and minimizing your exposure to other pollutants, can ease and quicken the withdrawal process.
The Caffeine Alternatives
For people who enjoy hot drinks, there are plenty of tasty, caffeine free options, such as organic herbal teas, fruit teas, rooibos tea and a wide variety of herbal coffee alternatives based on barley, chicory and rye.
Decaffeinated coffee is another option. Caffeine is removed from the coffee beans using one of three things – chemical solvents (which may leave low levels of residue behind), water or carbon dioxide.
However, decaffeinated coffee will still contain very low levels of caffeine and two other stimulants – theobromine and theophylline.
- Ground coffee – 115mg
- Instant coffee – 115mg
- Decaffeinated coffee – 3mg
- Tea – 40mg
- Decaffeinated tea – 3 mg
Chocolate, per 225g bar:
- Dark chocolate – 160mg
- Milk chocolate – 40mg
Painkiller tablet – 30mg