Drug of choice

Get between me and my morning cup of coffee, and things are going to get ugly real fast.

I love that first daily jolt of java and all the rituals associated with it… the aroma, the taste, the warmth of the coffee mug as I wrap my hands around it. Without it, I feel deprived. Take away my caffeine, and by mid-morning I’m a bit cranky and coming down with a slight headache.

So does this mean I have, uh, A Problem With Caffeine Addiction?

What exactly is caffeine, anyway? If you want to get scientific about it, it’s a xanthine alkaloid produced naturally in some 60 different species of plants, including coffee, tea and cacao. It is classed as a stimulant of the central nervous system. If this makes it a drug, then North America is awash in this particular chemical; as many as 90 percent of us consume caffeine each day, usually in the form of coffee or soft drinks – and, increasingly, in caffeine-turbocharged energy drinks.

People like caffeine because it makes them feel more alert, more stimulated and more energetic. In reasonable quantities, it doesn’t seem to be harmful. Consume higher amounts, however, and you’re likely to start having problems with restlessness, insomnia and tremors. This cut-off point is commonly considered to be 1,000 mg of caffeine per day, but the threshold can be lower depending on individual characteristics such as age, body weight and caffeine tolerance.

This is not a message that people always heed. If you were among the 200 or so people who attended a couple of community presentations last week on energy drinks, you would have learned from Rick Moldenhauer, a consultant with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, that there’s a fair amount of what might be termed "problem drinking" among users of energy drinks – large quantities, large amounts of caffeine, and often consumed with additional stimulants such as nicotine or depressants such as alcohol.

There can be a mindset that if a little bit is good, a whole lot is even better. We’re so surrounded by caffeine that it’s easy to think of it as harmless – which it basically is, as long as it’s consumed in moderation.

But let’s not kid ourselves here. Yes, you can become addicted to caffeine. The My Caffeine Addiction Web site explains how this works:

Caffeine will make you feel good, while also making you more alert. For people who have a difficult time staying awake or getting ready for work, drinking caffeine is a natural solution. But over time, this can begin to have many negative side effects on the body. Additionally, a caffeine high will only last for so long. Soon enough you are sure to come down from this high, and the result is one of extreme fatigue. For many caffeine addicts, the only way to beat this fatigue is to once again put more of this substance into their body.

How do you know if you’re becoming addicted? The signs are similar to other forms of addiction: namely, an inability to function well without this drug of choice. Some experts have gone so far as to characterize caffeine addiction as a mental disorder. National Geographic explored this whole issue in a rather fascinating article a few years ago and concluded that regular caffeine consumption does indeed result in physical dependence that can trigger unpleasant symptoms – headache, fatigue, difficulty with concentration, and even flu-like symptoms – when the drug is withdrawn. In fact, many people use caffeine "more to stave off withdrawal symptoms than to simply enjoy the product," the article noted.

It all sounds a little dire. I can get along fine on just two cups of coffee a day – one in the morning and another pick-me-up later in the day. Does that make me an addict? Probably not. Am I physically dependent on caffeine? Um, well, maybe sort of, with a psychological security-blanket element mixed in as well. Is this a bad thing? Most likely not. So don’t bother taking my coffee cup away until you have to pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.

HealthBeat photo by Anne Polta

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