By: Kaleigh Nobbe, Clinical Intern
Caffeine is currently the world’s most commonly used drug. And because caffeine is present in so many common foods and drinks, it is easy to forget that it is a drug. It is even an ingredient in beverages and foods that are marketed to kids including chocolate and tea. But caffeine has significant effects on the body and physical health.
Caffeine is a stimulant drug. It may surprise you to realize that this is the same type of drug as cocaine and meth, substances we think of as hard drugs. Stimulant drugs work partly by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, which causes the same physical effects as the “fight or flight response:” speeding up the heart and breathing, making you feel more alert, and increasing muscle tension. And when caffeine is consumed in large quantities, the side effects can range from unpleasant to severe.
Caffeine can affect your sleep by keeping you awake longer, shortening the amount of sleep you get, and giving you less time in the needed sleep stages. This takes a toll on your level of alertness the next day and on overall health. However, caffeine doesn’t affect the stages of sleep the way other stimulants do, so it’s a better choice than speed or other uppers if you need to stay awake.
If caffeine elevates for a temporary boost after it wears off, the body can feel fatigued and feelings of mild to moderate depression can set in. This can make physical activity more difficult. Caffeine and stress can both elevate cortisol levels. High amounts of caffeine can lead to the negative health associated with prolonged elevated levels of stress. However, small to moderate amounts of caffeine can lift your mood and give you a temporary boost. If you imbibe high levels of caffeine, you may feel your mood soar and plummet, leaving you craving more caffeine to make it soar again, causing you to lose sleep, suffer health consequences, and feel more stress.
In simple terms, the stimulant effect of caffeine speeds up the heart rate and research shows that the level of caffeine at which the heart rate is significantly affected is 400 milligrams, about four cups of brewed coffee. For most people who drink caffeine in moderation, this isn’t necessarily harmful, but for people who are prone to anxiety, this may increase the likelihood of panic reactions, because caffeine also increases anxiety, and people experiencing panic reactions often worry they are having a heart attack.
Find out more about how your caffeine consumption may be impacting your life.
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