July 28, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Caffeine. It's found in beverages and chocolate, pep pills, diet pills and anti-cellulite creams. It stimulates the nervous system, jump-starts urine production and can increase heart rate, blood pressure and the potential for dehydration. Too much caffeine can trigger the jitters. Not enough caffeine can cause headaches and irritability.

Some people can't start their day without it. Others can't end their day with it. And some people can't handle caffeine at all.

Caffeine, like most things, though, is fine in moderation for most people. It is excess that gets people into trouble when there looking for a jolt.


"It affects people in different ways," says Tammy Thornton, a nutritionist at the Washington County Health Department. "A couple cups (of coffee) a day in a healthy person who eats a healthy diet should be no problem. A little bit of caffeine isn't going to hurt. It's those people who drink a pot of coffee every day and who don't eat a healthy diet who can have problems."

Some people are especially sensitive to caffeine, which can be both manufactured and found naturally in the leaves, seeds and fruits of more than 60 plants. Caffeine-sensitive individuals can experience anxiety, heart palpitations and other problems when they consume even a small amount of caffeine, Thornton says.

Those who can't stomach caffeine should steer clear of canned drinks such as Red Bull and Bawls, each serving of which contains 80 milligrams of caffeine extracted from the potent Brazilian guarana bean. The Bawls Web site at warns individuals with heart problems or high blood pressure to use caution when consuming large quantities of guarana, which contains about three times as much caffeine as a coffee bean.

"Caffeine might not lead to high blood pressure, but it doesn't help either," Thornton says.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers about 300 milligrams of caffeine - which equals between two and three cups of brewed coffee - to be a safe daily amount, FDA spokesman Stephen King says.

The average American adult consumes about 200 milligrams of caffeine per day, and the average child consumes between 35 and 40 milligrams of caffeine daily, according to the International Food Information Council Web site at

"I personally don't recommend caffeine for children," Thornton says. "One cola for a small child may have the same effect as three to four cups of coffee for an adult."

No hard scientific evidence has been found to link moderate caffeine intake to such health problems as cancer, cardiovascular disease, fibrocystic breast disease or birth defects. But research indicates that caffeine makes it difficult for the body to absorb calcium, and that extremely high doses of caffeine can lead to miscarriages, according to the Mayo Clinic's consumer Web site at

"They say a few cups of coffee a day is OK if you're pregnant. Personally, I wouldn't drink caffeine if I was pregnant. It's a stimulant, an upper, and that can't be good for the baby," says registered dietician Heidi Reichenberger, Boston-based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that nursing women limit caffeine intake to about 100 milligrams per day because caffeine can enter breastmilk, and high amounts can cause the baby to become wakeful and agitated, according to the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction Web site at

Excessive caffeine intake also can cause jitters, anxiety, insomnia and inability to concentrate - effects which don't linger too long, Reichenberger says.

Though a few studies indicate that large amounts of caffeine - equal to six cups of strong coffee per day - may slightly enhance weight loss in people who exercise and maintain a low-fat diet, even this amount doesn't seem to greatly increase the body's ability to burn calories. Nor do the appetite-suppressant and diuretic effects of caffeine last long enough or decrease the body fat necessary to lead to significant weight loss, the Mayo Clinic Web site states.

Caffeine addicts likely will experience short-term headaches, irritability and inability to concentrate when they stop using caffeine for added energy - but the sacrifice might be better for their bodies, Reichenberger says.

"Look at why you're using so much caffeine. Do you sleep enough? Are you eating a balanced diet? If you improved your lifestyle habits, maybe you wouldn't need all that caffeine," she says.

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