Caffeine: The Good, The Bad, The Alternatives

By: Jeff Takacs 05/07/2014

Chances are, you have knowingly or unknowingly given your body a jolt of caffeine today. Maybe it was a cup of coffee in the morning or a bite of chocolate in the afternoon. Maybe it was an oral supplement or an energy drink. According to the National Coffee Association, nearly 90 percent of Americans drink coffee daily, and the U.S. spends about $40 billion dollars each year on coffee. Non-coffee sources, which include tea, energy drinks and oral supplements, make up a rising percentage of total caffeine consumption.

Whether you are a moderate, informed caffeine user or a self-proclaimed "caffeine freak," we could all benefit from a mindful approach to this daily ritual. So, pour yourself a cup of joe or hot tea or grab that handful of guarana berries, and let’s consider caffeine: what it is, how it works, how we can use it and what are some alternatives for healthy, natural energy boosts.

What is Caffeine

Here’s a mouthful: Caffeine is a highly bioavailable psychoactive alkaloid that works directly on the central nervous system. (Fun exercise: Try ordering that at Starbucks.) In simpler terms, caffeine is a chemical compound that the body absorbs very well. It naturally occurs as a fine white powder that acts as an insecticide in certain plants, like the cocoa and coffee plants, and it is incredibly potent. The primary short-term physiological effect of caffeine is to stimulate the brain and spinal cord, which it does quite quickly. It’s not just a cultural custom that leads a majority of Americans to drink coffee in the morning; it actually—chemically—helps wake up the body.

But due to shortages in naturally occurring caffeine and the rising popularity of energy supplements, such as Red Bull and other drinks and powders, synthetically produced caffeine is on the rise. While synthetic and natural caffeine look the same and have a very similar way of acting on the body, there are a couple important differences:

  • Synthetic caffeine produces a much quicker "rush" and a more rapid crash.
  • Synthetic caffeine lacks the plant-based vitamins and nutrients found in naturally occurring caffeine, which may disturb a healthy balance.
  • Many products using synthetic caffeine include several other, cheaper substances, such as sugar, that can mimic the healthy effects of natural caffeine.

But what about long-term effects, and what is the real cost of this addiction so many us have?

The Pros

Scientists and physicians agree that caffeine produces some beneficial responses in the body: The metabolic rate is increased, thought is quickened and clarified and physical coordination is actually improved. A study in the journal Sports Medicine, for example, concluded that caffeine improved the times of sprinters. The health benefits of caffeine also includes reduced risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

So why do we hear so many voices trying to discourage our caffeine consumption? Well, let's take a look at the dark side.

The Cons

The greatest risk of caffeine consumption is sleep deprivation, and the list of problems associated with sleep deprivation—including cardiovascular disease and brain function—is very long and very well-researched. We should all carefully and realistically consider the difference between caffeine that helps us wake up in the morning and caffeine that keeps us awake at night when we should be sleeping.

Non-psychiatric caffeine-associated risks include increased vasoconstriction, heart palpitations, gastric distress and urinary problems. Because caffeine has a diuretic effect, urinary incontinence and related issues may be aggravated by caffeine consumption, especially in the form of coffee.

Cons Relating Specifically to Coffee

Coffee—as opposed to caffeine—is known to cause the stomach to produce hydrochloric acid to aid in the digestion of the coffee. This acid, especially on an empty stomach (Hello, morning coffee drinkers!), can cause discomfort and can lead to ulcers, a breakdown of the stomach lining and other unwanted stressors. Also, most of us do not take our coffee black; we dress it up with sugar or cream. While the amount of sugar and cream may seem insignificant on a per-cup basis, day after day, cup after cup, it all adds up to quite a bit of fat and unnecessary calories.

Moving Away from Coffee and Caffeine

As we have seen, the health benefits of caffeine are quite pronounced. It's no wonder the Ojibwe Indians of the Dakota territories called coffee "Black Medicine," and the great and prolific French writer Honoré de Balzac drank strong black coffee unceasingly during his marathon writing sessions. But maybe you are one of those people adversely affected by coffee's acid or by caffeine's ability to cause a racing heart, headaches or lack of sleep. If so, healthy alternatives exist.

From a pick-me-up and focus standpoint, ginseng (a root extract) and ginkgo biloba (an herbal extract) have been shown to help. From the standpoint of long-term health benefits, natural supplements, such as Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and Ubiquinol, can be extremely effective in boosting energy levels because they aid in the generation of cellular energy. They also provide other benefits that caffeine does not, such as protecting cells from oxidative stress. Whether or not you plan to give up caffeine, other supplements can be a good idea for natural energy boosts and plenty of other health reasons.

Finally, there is that often overlooked but tremendously important aspect of a healthy lifestyle: pleasure. If that steaming cup of coffee first thing in the morning gets your day off on a pleasurable foot, and you are not experiencing an acidic stomach and heart palpitations, go ahead and indulge—just be mindful of what you're indulging in!



Jeff Takacs

Jeff Takacs is a health care writer and researcher based in California and New York. He has written for a variety of groups and publications, including OTR Global, the Juvenile Diabetes Cure Alliance and CHEST. He is also an avid disc golfer.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, or its partners.

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