We know that too much caffeine can be bad for us. But between the recent school ban Premium energy drinks and the death of a teenager due to Paneras High Caffeinated Lemonade (and her parents’ subsequent lawsuit), many people rightly wondered How Too much caffeine is too much? How much do you need to drink to be at risk of overdosing?
We consulted two nutritionists for their expertise on all things caffeine. Here’s everything you need to know about what’s in your morning coffee and whether you should think twice before grabbing that Diet Coke at 3pm.
What caffeine does to you
Caffeine is a chemical stimulant found naturally in plants such as coffee beans, tea leaves, cocoa beans and guarana berries, said Alli Mast, RDN. Many of us consume it in beverages that directly extract it, such as coffee or tea. It is also extracted in laboratories and added to beverages such as soft drinks, energy drinks, sports supplements and medicines.
Once in our system, caffeine increases our alertness and at least temporarily reduces fatigue. Kim Yavitz, RD, owner of Two Six Fitness in St. Louis, said it increases activity in the central nervous system and speeds up the speed of communication between the brain and the rest of the body. According to Mast, it also prevents us from getting tired by blocking adenosine receptors, which are sensors that monitor the accumulation of adenosine in our bodies during the day and cause us to be sleepy. Mast said that only sleep clears that adenosine. Caffeine doesn’t give you energy, it just delays fatigue for a while. In other words, that cup of coffee at 2 pm is just delaying the inevitable.
At first, caffeine may seem like a great performance enhancer. Mast said it can cause people to feel motivated (and) focused and improve learning, be protective against depression, improve physical performance and increase metabolism. But according to Javic, too much can lead to anxiety, insomnia, diarrhea, jitters, rapid heart rate and other unpleasant side effects. And, in very extreme cases, death.
So how much should we drink?
The FDA’s recommendations regarding daily caffeine consumption for adults are uncomfortably nonbinding. Theirs 2023 Report states that 400 milligrams per day is an amount generally not associated with dangerous, negative effects.
Hmm. Not Usually connected? It’s not reassuring. That’s the amount of caffeine in about four eight-ounce cups of coffee. One can of Prime energy drink contains 200 mg of caffeine.
The FDA is also quick to remind us that there is wide variation in how sensitive people are to the effects of caffeine and how quickly they metabolize it [break it down]. In other words, what isn’t too much caffeine for you might be too much for someone else.
Then there are other factors to consider. According to Yavitz, women who are pregnant and breastfeeding may need to limit caffeine to 200 milligrams per day, simply because babies don’t have the enzymes necessary to metabolize it. Mast also said people with anxiety disorders and heart conditions should limit caffeine consumption because of the way the stimulant can increase anxiety, agitation, (and) blood pressure and cause palpitations. Those with gastroesophageal reflux disease should also stay away, as caffeine can worsen reflux symptoms.
Children are a very special category. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry strongly discourages caffeine consumption for any child under the age of 12. Teenagers are a little different. According to Yavitz, most healthy teens can safely consume up to 100 milligrams of caffeine per day, which is basically the equivalent of 24 ounces of soda or one eight-ounce cup of coffee. Or half a can of Prime energy drink.
To caffeinate or not to caffeinate?
Because everyone is different, there is no absolute answer to the question of how much caffeine is too much. Barring specific conditions, most adults are probably safe with the FDA guideline of 400 mg per day. It’s just important to be mindful of how much you consume, as well as when you consume it. That morning coffee habit is fine as long as you watch how much you drink. Remember that eight ounces of coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine, and your favorite cup probably contains at least 12 ounces. A can of diet soda at 3pm is also fine as long as you keep in mind that those 46mg of caffeine can keep you awake for 8-10 hours. No one wants to be up at 2 a.m. on a weekday.
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