CAFFEINE: What the Herd Does Is Not Necessarily the Enlightened Choice

Here’s a package deal for you. With one new habit you can look better and feel better while you save a pleasing sum for that home, holiday or car.

Consumer magazine estimates that by cutting out five lattes per week (or other questionable habit) and making the sum an additional mortgage payment instead, you could pay off your house more than seven years earlier. This could save you close to $40,000. Or your savings can make other debts disappear, or go into a nice Something Special for Me Fund.

While you are planning which tropical island to visit, you will also be diminishing stress levels and improving your health. Despite its popularity, caffeine can threaten all that and more. Cigarettes too were once looked upon as benign with doctors promoting them for relaxation.

If you feel tired, jumpy or irritable; if your weight stays too high or low despite exercise and good eating habits; if you have reflux, IBS, liver or digestive problems; if your symptoms scream out for supplements such as calcium and magnesium but even high doses don’t help; if you are unable to make it through the morning or afternoon without at least one hit of coffee, tea, chocolate, energy drink, guarana or soft drink: that trendy source of caffeine could be to blame.

A Psychoactive Drug

It has been said that if caffeine were discovered today it would be classed as a drug and prohibited without a prescription. Caffeine causes changes in brain chemicals in several ways. One pathway is to mimic adenosine – a neurotransmitter and important regulator of relaxation and sleep.

Caffeine binds to receptors in the brain and prevents adenosine from slowing down nerve impulses. Your brain is forced into alertness by stepping on the body’s accelerator: the sympathetic nervous system (see website TIPS:…Adrenals). This releases the neurotransmitters/hormones dopamine, adrenalin and noradrenalin. Normally these are stimulated in response to a perceived threat. They increase heart rate and blood pressure; force the Liver to raise blood sugar levels, while decreasing Digestion (TIPS) and the ability to relax.

Dopamine is critical for the regulation of movement, memory, and insulin levels (related to carbohydrate usage, cravings, and storage as fat), and impulses toward pleasure and reward. Addictions, whether to substances such as alcohol or nicotine, or to behaviours such as gambling or other risk taking, involve over-activated dopamine centres. Tolerance levels are soon reached and ever more stimulants are required to achieve fleeting satisfaction. Sudden cessation of intake or activation creates unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Cut down slowly until the receptors reduce to a normal level (TIPS: Free Medicine).

Regular caffeine drinkers develop extra adenosine receptors. If caffeine is stopped abruptly, withdrawal symptoms can start within 12 hours and last up to 7 days. Gradually cut down by ¼ for 2-3 days (eg from 4 cups to 3; or ¼ less beans/granules) then reduce again. Offset with added cinnamon, chai spices, carob, decaf or dandelion coffee. Heightened sensitivity to adenosine’s sedating effects may bring tiredness, headaches, nausea or breast pain due to its role in dilating blood vessels. The ‘happy’ neurotransmitter serotonin can briefly diminish, which leads to irritability, poor motivation and concentration.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Caffeine freely diffuses into cells and stimulates the release of intracellular minerals, especially Calcium and Magnesium (TIPS). These valuable micronutrients (needed for muscles, nerves, Bones, Sleep (TIPS) and more) are instead sent off for disposal since the after-effect of raised adrenalin is increased urination. While ingesting caffeine your stomach acids increase which can lead to ulcers and reflux. Decaffeinated beverages also stimulate gastric mucosa and acid secretion so caffeine is not the sole contributing component. Calcium, magnesium, and potassium are alkaline minerals needed to neutralise excess acidity. If intake is low or urination high, then they are withdrawn from weakening storage sites such as joints and teeth. Muscular aches, cramps, headaches, nervous and digestive problems are then more likely.

Caffeine is metabolised by a liver enzyme Cytochrome P450 that breaks down toxic chemicals including those linked with breast, bowel and bladder cancer. It is estimated that about half the population are slow caffeine metabolisers; a function that diminishes with age. After break down, blood fat levels tend to rise. On average the time it takes for caffeine to be eliminated from the system in adults is 8 hours; in pregnancy 18-22 hours; for women taking oral contraceptives 10-20 hours; with serious liver problems 192 hours; in a breast fed baby 60 hours.

A recent study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology showed women who ingest 200 mg or more of caffeine daily are twice as likely to miscarry. This total can be achieved with just two cups of coffee or a few soft drinks. The foetus has limited enzymes for efficient break down (TIPS: Fertility). Just one cup daily can significantly elevate estrogen levels associated with weight gain; hormone sensitive cancers; menstrual, menopausal and prostate problems (TIPS: Sex Hormones).

Psychiatric literature cautions that caffeine-induced disorders can mimic mental disorders such as anxiety, panic attacks, bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia. These may be misdiagnosed and unnecessarily medicated for. A study in the British Journal of Addiction concluded that caffeinism may afflict as many as one person in ten (TIPS: Moods and Foods).

What Is It Exactly?

Caffeine is a xanthine alkaloid found in over 60 plants where it acts as a natural pesticide, paralysing and killing insects. As well as being found in plant foods, xanthines are also the product of the breakdown of Proteins (TIPS) in the body. These are precursors to uric acid. This waste product is made by the liver and sent to the Kidneys (TIPS) for elimination in urine. Too much uric acid impedes liver function, and increases the risk of gout (a form of arthritis), and of uric acid crystals in the kidneys forming stones. High uric acid is also associated with oxidative stress (linked with premature ageing and most disease), insulin resistance (thus obesity and diabetes), hypertension and high LDL cholesterol. Too much caffeine, Alcohol (TIPS), ascorbic acid (a form of vitamin C), and numerous Medications (TIPS) can increase uric acid, as can too many foods high in purines (a component of protein) such as meat, fish and seafood.

Some green teas are advertised caffeine-free. But they contain other forms of xanthines (theophylline and theobromine; both in chocolate and still requiring P450 for breakdown) that some people remain sensitive too. Xanthines dilate blood vessels and are linked with headache, migraine and breast pain. Black leaf tea has about half the caffeine of coffee, with Earl Grey having the most. Dark coffee beans tend to have less caffeine than lighter ones because the roasting process reduces caffeine. Arabica beans have half that of robusto; a rougher grind and a longer brew produce more.

One shot espresso has 30-100 mg; with 100-200 mg for 1 cup (250 ml) drip or plunger coffee; decaffeinated coffee has 2-15 mg. Green tea has 0-25 mg; black leaf tea 50 mg; guarana drink 25 mg. 330 ml bottle soft drink contains 25–55 mg; energy/sports drinks have 75-280 mg. 50 g bar of dark chocolate has 35 mg; milk chocolate has 10 mg.

To remove caffeine, coffee beans are soaked in water. The water is passed through activated charcoal to remove the caffeine but not the flavour components. The water is returned to the beans and evaporated to leave the flavour residue on the beans. Manufacturers recover the caffeine for use in medicines and soft drinks. Apart from this ‘water-process’ method, cheaper decafs use chemical solvents. In the past more hazardous chlorinated and aromatic solvents were used; now replaced by the more benign ethyl acetate.

What are the Options?

Buy a gorgeous new mug or teapot to celebrate the positive change that can improve your moods, nerves, sleep, vitality, weight and finances. Try out speciality stores and become a herb tea connoisseur. Loose tea has higher antioxidant content than tea bags. Drink purified water or add: a slice of lime or lemon; sprig of fresh mint or lemon balm; 1 tsp Mint Chlorofresh (highly alkaline and good for mineral absorption). Or have hot water with slices of gingerroot, lemon; mint or lemon balm sprig; or 1 tsp hatcho miso. Or enjoy a thermos of hot broth (season homemade or Essential Cuisine stock).

Coffee fans should try caffeine-free Teeccino. It comes plain or in such natural flavours (mostly organic) as Java, Mocha, Chocolate Mint, Hazelnut, Vanilla, Amaretto, Chai, and Chilli. Delicious dark, rich, aromatic coffee-like blends are made from chicory, carob, barley (gluten-free), nuts and dried fruit. They can be prepared in 3 minutes from ‘tea-bags’ or in a plunger. From health stores or order an inexpensive sampler pack online.

To successfully replace a habit like coffee first evaluate what it is you like about it. In discussing this with patients the following qualities get mentioned: it’s a strong, bitter, adult drink kids don’t have (replace with plunger or instant dandelion coffee; optional 1 tsp chai spices such as organic Plant Song brand – no tea content; from health stores); it’s milky (dande with soy, oat, goat, almond, coconut, hazelnut; or rice milk mixed with a little coconut cream); it’s got more body than tea (dande with chai spices or cinnamon, or 1-3 tsp carob powder; milk option); it’s a sweet stimulant (dande as above with honey or palm sugar, dash vanilla extract; or try licorice tea). Remember, if you crave stimulants it is because your health is not in balance. Like heroin to an addict it seems to bring reprieve, but at cost. Address your health issues and watch your tastes and desires change.


Vivien Pont

Hi Maria, Thanks for this great article on caffeine. I was very interested in how xanthines can act like caffeine. Maybe why I am affected by decaf tea and coffee! I know cardamon (and apparently St John’s Wort) helps against the effects of caffeine. Does anything help against xanthines’ caffeine-like effects on anxiety?

Many thanks,

Maria Middlestead

Hi Viv. Good work in observing caffeine’s effect on you. Many people who are reactive to caffeine and its cousins are what I term the Enthusiast body-type (often looking for stimulants if they do not have well regulated blood sugar levels). Please see my book The Shape Diet to determine your metabolic type and which foods work for and against you – this will help moderate caffeine’s effect. On my website, see the Health Store page and go to Books. If you order before Christmas, I will give you $10 off! Just mention that on your order. Warm Regards, Maria

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