Caffeine is the most commonly used drug in America — and I say that because it is, in fact, a drug.
While it’s far more accessible than most drugs, caffeine is still a substance we take in artificially to produce a desired effect. Naturally, as you build up a tolerance to caffeine, your own unchecked intake increases over time. As a result, most of us are dependent on or addicted to caffeine in some way.
Advertisers are aware of this addiction, too, and they prey on it with “caffeine-alternative” drinks. As a physician, these drinks drive me crazy — in reality, they’re worse than caffeine. They usually have a ton of sugar and other additives that increase your heart rate more than caffeine does. Ironically, drinking caffeine would actually be better for your health.
Caffeine has gotten a fair amount of negative attention in the media, so let’s clear up some misconceptions.
Is Caffeine Bad for You?
Caffeine is not inherently bad for you. In fact, it can be a good thing.
For example, because caffeine is a stimulant, it can help you focus when you aren’t sleeping well. But just like everything else in life, it needs to be used in moderation. In this case, there can absolutely be too much of a good thing.
Too much caffeine is bad for your body. At high levels, caffeine can increase your heart rate, forcing your cardiovascular system to work harder and harder. If your heart is constantly stressed, your blood pressure increases.
High blood pressure is a proven cause of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and strokes. So, while caffeine has some great benefits, you don’t want to use too much.
What Does Moderation Really Mean?
It’s hard to find a clear answer on what counts as “too much” caffeine when there’s so much contradictory information out there. While plenty of infographics online suggest different quantities, reputable health centers recommend up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day for most healthy adults.
For context, that’s roughly four cups of brewed coffee, ten cans of soda, or two “energy shot” drinks a day, but caffeine values can vary significantly between beverages.
As a physician, my definition of caffeine moderation is the same one I use when I prescribe medications: Drugs should be taken at the lowest possible dose to produce the desired effect — and that includes caffeine. Sure, you could take up to the prescribed limit, but why get too close to that line and risk falling off? Stay in a safe zone.
When evaluating your caffeine intake, it’s also important to consider what you really need the caffeine to do for you.
- Are you drinking your morning cup of joe out of habit?
- Are you drinking that energy drink because you know you need to get something done?
If your caffeine intake is more habitual than it is purposeful…
- Is there something else you could swap it with?
- Do you really need that second dose?
If you’re trying to reduce your caffeine intake, start by switching to a lower amount than you currently drink, then try to address why you’re drinking it in the first place.
Is Caffeine Addiction Real?
Caffeine addition is absolutely real, and a lot of people are addicts. Cutting yourself off “cold turkey” comes with true withdrawal symptoms, including headaches and irritability. To reduce the impact of these symptoms, come up with a plan to cut back a little bit each day or each week.
When we try to cut back on an addictive substance, we’re also fighting a habit. Take cigarette smoking as an example — not only is it difficult to stop smoking because of the nicotine addiction, it’s also hard to stop because you’re used to the physical hand-to-mouth action of smoking.
Caffeine is the same way. People drink coffee out of habit. There’s a revered routine involved with brewing a pot or making a latte. You might love to put your hands around a warm cup of coffee in the morning. It’s a ritual.
If you’re trying to cut back on caffeine, it’s important to find something to replace that ritual. For example, decaffeinated substitutes could remove the chemical addiction while still satisfying the behavioral component of drinking coffee.
How Can You Improve Your Energy Levels Without Caffeine?
While it seems counterintuitive, if you lose an hour of sleep, get up and exercise. You’ll have more energy that day. It might sound impossible, but it’s absolutely real.
Movement is incredibly important. Your body is designed to move, so rather than artificially using caffeine to wake yourself up, go for a brisk walk. In addition to being more alert throughout the day, you’ll also burn some calories in the process.
While there’s no direct replacement for a stimulant, vitamin B12 supplements can create a feeling of wakefulness by converting what you eat into energy.
In addition to physical exercise, exercising your mind by reading a book or solving a crossword puzzle reengages your brain. Watching TV could be an option here, but that’s a personal preference. Some of us are engaged when we watch TV, but for others it’s a low-engagement habit during which we tend to zone out.
Social interactions are huge for stimulating the mind. Having a conversation will force you to use your brain and will hopefully clear up any mental fog in the process.
Go to Bed Earlier
If coffee helps you fight off fatigue, getting more quality sleep can eliminate fatigue — and the need for caffeine — altogether.
As humans, we’re prone to habit-forming behaviors — especially if they produce “good” results. When we find something that can help us be more focused and productive, it’s unsurprising that we incorporate it into our routines. But like all things in life, moderation is important.
The real keys to managing your caffeine consumption are to be aware of it and to make sure you’re not overdoing it.