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Coffee Talk: Caffeine and Your Health

"Caffeine is a wonderful molecule that has a lot of benefits, as well as a few drawbacks."

Pour yourself a cup of coffee and spend a few minutes with Dr. Keller Wortham, MD, for this morning's Inside Health! Today, Dr. Keller is talking about the many health benefits of caffeine. We'll also take a look at some of the downsides, some categories of people who should be cautious around caffeine, and why some people are more sensitive to its effects than others. So get cozy, because you won't want to miss morning coffee with Dr. Keller today!

Video Highlights

  • 02:01: What Does Caffeine Do?
    • 04:28: Health Benefits of Caffeine
    • 04:39: Increases Alertness
    • 05:34: Improves Mood
      • 06:06: Improves Memory
      • 06:53: Relieves Migraine Pain
      • 08:08: Improves Athletic Performance
      • 09:19: Relieves Asthma Symptoms
      • 09:49: Reduces Risk of Parkinson’s
      • 10:25: Drawbacks of Caffeine Use
      • 12:57: Side Effects of Too Much Caffeine
      • 15:24: People Who Should be Cautious About Caffeine
      • 17:35: Why Some People are Sensitive to Caffeine
      • 19:23: Caffeine and the Immune System

      Over 60% of Americans drink coffee every day! Some love the ritual, the warmth, the taste… for some, it’s a great excuse to add a bunch of milk and sugar, but most of us love the effects of coffee. We love that feeling energized, alert, and awake when we drink coffee. And we all know what the key ingredient behind those effects are, right? Caffeine.

      Caffeine is a bitter substance that exists naturally in coffee, tea, leaves, and cocoa, and it can feel like a miracle. It has so many effects on both the brain and the body, both good and not so good.

      What Does Caffeine Do?

      Caffeine is responsible for a lot of the effects of coffee. Caffeine is what we call a central nervous stimulant, and that is why we feel more alert after consuming it. Caffeine exists in different amounts in different drinks: a cup of coffee might have 200 - 300 mg of caffeine, depending on the type of coffee, or some black teas may be even higher in caffeine than traditional coffee, while other drinks like white tea, green tea, and chocolate, tend to have less caffeine. 

      Caffeine takes about an hour to enter the bloodstream after consuming it, which is why you usually have to wait a while for coffee to kick in, and then it stays active in the body for about 4 - 6 hours. That’s why many people can’t drink caffeine at all after a certain time in the afternoon if they want to go to sleep on time. 

      This molecule has been around for a long time — it was discovered a long time ago, and has been part of all kinds of cultural traditions, and has been used for a long time by the medical community. That’s because, over the years, people discovered that caffeine has a lot of properties that make it very useful for a lot of different things.

      Health Benefits of Caffeine

      Increases Alertness

      When we talk about caffeine as a central nervous system stimulant, we’re talking about its effect primarily on the brain. We know coffee increases alertness, which is why it’s frequently consumed by truckers, air traffic controllers, doctors, and others with demanding schedules who need to stay awake. Caffeine has a certain property that affects a molecule called the GABA molecule. The GABA molecule exists in the brain, and its function is more or less to help us calm down and relax. Caffeine suppresses the action of the GABA molecule, resulting in more energy and alertness. That can have a lot of benefits, especially if your job requires you to stay alert and awake.

      Improves Mood

      You may have noticed that when you drink coffee in the morning, you not only feel more alert, you feel happier. It’s not just a placebo effect. This happens because caffeine improves levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that contributes to feelings of happiness and wellbeing. So as you increase serotonin, your mood will be elevated.

      Improves Memory 

      If you’ve ever been studying for an important test, and found that drinking coffee seemed to help you stay more focused, and increased your ability to memorize things, this is why. Researchers have done double blind studies where they gave people caffeine and other substances, and found that people who were drinking a caffeinated beverage could memorize longer sequences of numbers and longer word patterns. So it’s actually been documented that caffeine can really help you improve memory.

      Relieves Migraine Pain

      A lot of people get migraines, which can be debilitating. Caffeine has been shown to reduce the pain of migraines! The thought is that it works on the vascular system of the brain, and helps contract arteries in the brain that have dilated too much. So caffeine can be a very valuable tool in treating headaches naturally. In fact, a lot of over-the-counter migraine medications, like Excedrin Migraine, have caffeine in them! On the flip side, caffeine can alsocause headaches. If you drink a lot of caffeine and then stop, you can get what’s called a withdrawal headache. 

      Caffeine Improves Athletic Performance

      Drinking a shake with caffeine in it can actually improve your workout. That is because caffeine has an effect on acetylcholine levels in the blood. Acetylcholine is a molecule in your muscles, that helps them contract efficiently. It’s so well known that caffeine can increase your acetylcholine levels by up to 50%, that a lot of athletes swear by caffeine to enhance their performance. Of course if you’re a professional athlete, or even collegiate, you can’t exceed a certain level of caffeine in the blood, or it could be considered cheating, sort of like steroid use. But in general, having a couple cups of coffee can improve athletic performance and muscle efficiency. 

      Caffeine Reduces Asthma Symptoms

      If you suffer from Asthma, you may already have noticed that when you drink caffeine, your breathing gets more relaxed That is partly to do with caffeine’s stimulating effect on the airways. When the airways are stimulated, they tend to dilate, helping them open up and get more air in. Since Asthma is a condition that involves constricting of the airways, you can turn to caffeine to help relieve it!

      Caffeine Reduces Risk of Parkinson’s Disease

      Researchers have actually done studies that show that consuming larger amounts of caffeine daily can actually reduce the risk of getting the neurologic condition known as Parkinson’s. 

      So this little coffee bean can do a lot of amazing things in the body! Sounds great, right? It is! But of course there’s a flip side to every coin. We do need to discuss some of the cautionary aspects of caffeine consumption too. 

      Drawbacks of Caffeine

      We’re going to talk a little about the drawbacks of caffeine, and some categories of people who should avoid it or use it with great caution.

      Caffeine is a Diuretic

      That means it gets fluid out of your body, and makes you urinate. As a result, it can lead to an increased loss of water, and possibly dehydration. Dehydration can be harmful for so many reasons. It can affect everything from your voice to your athletic performance and kidneys. Extreme dehydration can even lead to death. So be careful of that diuretic effect, and make sure you’re also drinking plenty of water if you’re a coffee drinker.

      Caffeine Increases Bowel Movements

      This is because caffeine is a stimulant, which means it also stimulates the colon, and can lead to increased bowel movements. 

      Caffeine Stimulates Stomach Acid Production

      If you like coffee right after a meal, that may be at least partially instinctive because the stimulating effect of caffeine will move things through the intestine, but it’s also going to increase acid production in the stomach. That can help digest food, but if you’re someone who has too much stomach acid — if you suffer from gastritis, or frequent heartburn, for example — caffeine is not going to be a good thing for you. It will increase acid production even more, and will dilate the little muscle called the pyloric sphincter, causing it to open and making it easier for stomach acid to get up into the esophagus. That’s what causes heartburn!

      Caffeine Increases Blood Pressure

      Stimulants can increase blood pressure, so if you’re already at risk for high blood pressure, you’ll want to be cautious about your caffeine intake. 

      Too Much Caffeine Can Cause Side Effects

      We’ve all fallen into this trap, most likely. If you drink too much, you can get what’s called caffeine toxicity. Symptoms of caffeine toxicity can include feelings of anxiety, jitters or shaking, insomnia or disrupted sleep cycles, and even serious heart complications. The stimulant effect on the heart can cause what’s called an arrhythmia. If you notice that your heart starts skipping a beat after you consume caffeine, it may be because that stimulating effect of caffeine is causing those heart palpitations. 

      Caffeine also has an effect on the adrenal glands — glands that sit atop the kidneys, and are responsible for modulating stress responses. Caffeine has been shown to increase the secretion of cortisol and epinephrine, two hormones that mimic a stress response. Over time this can cause adrenal dysfunction, or adrenal fatigue

      People Who Should be Cautious with Caffeine

      • People with High Blood Pressure: As we discussed, caffeine can affect your blood pressure, so if it’s already high, or even borderline high, caffeine could negatively impact it. 
      • People with Bleeding Disorders: If you bleed easily, or are taking a medication that thins your blood, keep in mind that certain other molecules in coffee and tea can thin the blood even more. So be careful that you’re not putting yourself at risk for some kind of bleeding event.
      • People with Seizures: Since caffeine is a brain stimulant, too much caffeine has been found to trigger seizures in people who have had seizures in the past.  
      • People with Underlying Arrhythmia: If you have atrial fibrillation, or atrial flutter (conditions where your heartbeat can get out of whack) or you’re sensitive to caffeine and get palpitations, you need to be really careful with caffeine intake so you don’t put your heart into a frenzied rhythm. 
      • People with Heartburn: If you get heartburn easily, or suffer from GERD, gastritis, or a stomach ulcer, be very careful with caffeine, because it can both increase stomach acid production, and relax the muscles that protect your esophagus, resulting in major irritation and damage to the digestive tract.
      • People with a Calcium Deficiency or Osteoporosis: caffeine can actually reduce calcium absorption in the gut, so if you drink a lot of caffeine, you could set yourself up for not getting enough calcium from your diet, which can lead to osteoporosis. Caffeine also affects the way calcium is filtered through the kidneys, and could cause you to lose more calcium than you otherwise would have.

      Why Some People are More Sensitive to Caffeine 

      We all know some people who get the jitters after just a cup or two of coffee, while others seem totally unaffected by much higher amounts. Why is this? Well there actually are genetic differences in the way we metabolize caffeine, and also where the caffeine receptors are in our bodies. So if you find that you’re sensitive to caffeine, it may be that you’re just wired that way. It is true that over time, as you increase caffeine consumption, you can become more desensitized to it, so it is possible that caffeine sensitivity may occur for people who don’t drink it very often. 

      Other substances we have in our body, such as medications and other drugs, can also change the way we metabolize caffeine. Nicotine, for example, can cause us to metabolize caffeine a lot faster. There are other things that can slow down the metabolism of caffeine, and make the effects last longer. Birth control pills are one example. If you’re on birth control pills and you notice that it takes a long time for your body to come back down after a cup of coffee, that’s a biological effect due to a change in your metabolism.

      Caffeine Can Affect the Immune System

      There are two main branches of your immune system: the T cell and the B cell. T cell immunity can be suppressed by caffeine, which could be a benefit for people with autoimmune disorders. For example if you have Lupus, or Sjögren Syndrome or Rheumatoid Arthritis, you might notice that caffeine can calm down the autoimmune reaction and make symptoms better. On the other hand, caffeine can increase B cell immunity, and that can rev up things like allergic reactions, food sensitivities, or other things that are B cell regulated, making those symptoms worse.

      Okay, that’s a lot of caffeine information! Hopefully you had a cup of coffee to help you stay focused! Caffeine is a wonderful molecule that has a lot of benefits, as well as a few drawbacks. Whether coffee is right for you or not is your choice, but whatever you do, make an informed choice! 

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