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Caffeine, Alcohol, And Health - How Much Is Too Much?

Posted Nov 23 2009 10:00pm

coffee 235x300 Caffeine, Alcohol, And Health   How Much Is Too Much?

Today, I want to look at what I consider to be a couple of minor vices, provided their consumption is “moderate”. Moderate…how’s that for a word that has a million meanings? One person’s “moderation” is another person’s “excessive”. So today, we’ll look at two very common “drugs” used by the general populace, myself included, and try to figure out what is a “moderate” intake that won’t cause any health problems for most people.

Coffee, Coffee, Coffee

Sleep is a symptom of caffeine deprivation. ~Author Unknown

Coffee smells like freshly ground heaven. ~Jessi Lane Adams

First things first, obviously there are many other sources of caffeine besides coffee, but tea has very little and you already know I can’t get with energy drinks. So for me (and most other healthy folks), my only real source of caffeine is coffee. Sure, I drink some green or white tea, but the overall caffeine content is low (we’ll discuss that further in a couple sections).

The Effects Of Caffeine

At its heart, caffeine is a stimulant. It causes an increase in three stress hormones: cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. This basically causes a “fight or flight” response - elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, decreased blood flow to the digestive tract, and a general energetic feeling.

Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors in the brain, decreasing the action of adenosine, as well as decreasing the release of GABA (Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid). When adenosine binds to receptors, it causes drowsiness. GABA inhibits nerve transmissions, so this decrease explains the jitters that comes with too much caffeine, as well as the extra energy boost you get from a normal amount of caffeine.

Caffeine also stimulates the secretion of stomach acid. Combine that with the effect of decreasing lower esophageal sphincter pressure and it could exacerbate acid reflux.

Further, caffeine increases urinary calcium and magnesium loss.

The results of this study indicate that renal conservation does not fully compensate for the effect of caffeine on calcium and magnesium excretion. Regular consumption of caffeine may contribute to the causation of osteoporosis by promoting depletion of these two important minerals.

As you can see, this little alkaloid causes a host of effects in the body. It has broad reach in terms of waking you up. Somewhere in the chain of effects, it stimulates the release of dopamine, a “feel good” hormone, making you generally more upbeat, along with being more awake.

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Caffeine Metabolism

The body metabolizes caffeine into three substances:

  1. Paraxanthine: promotes the release of glycerol and free fatty acids into the blood stream (which likely causes caffeine’s performance-enhancing effects)
  2. Theobromine: dilates blood vessels and increases urine volume
  3. Theophylline: smooths muscles of the bronchi

Just like every other substance, caffeine has a half-life, or the amount of time it takes the body to eliminate half of it. The half-life of caffeine

…varies widely among individuals according to such factors as age, liver function, pregnancy, some concurrent medications, and the level of enzymes in the liver needed for caffeine metabolism. In healthy adults, caffeine’s half-life is approximately 3-4 hours. In women taking oral contraceptives this is increased to 5-10 hours, and in pregnant women the half-life is roughly 9-11 hours. Caffeine can accumulate in individuals with severe liver disease when its half-life can increase to 96 hours. In infants and young children, the half-life may be longer than in adults; half-life in a newborn baby may be as long as 30 hours. Other factors such as smoking can shorten caffeine’s half-life.

When it comes to “drugs,” it really doesn’t get much safer than caffeine. The effective dose is low (25-50mg) and the lethal dose is very high, between 150-200mg/kg of body weight. So unless you quaff 80-100 cups of the stuff in a short time frame, you’re not going to keel over. Of course, you could probably pull that off with concentrated caffeine pills, but you don’t need me to tell you it’s a bad idea.

How Much Caffeine Is In…

I mentioned that coffee is my only major source of caffeine (and also the main stimulant used worldwide). Let’s compare it to some other caffeine sources, just for grins. (Source: Energy Fiend )

  • Drip Coffee - 145mg
  • Single-shot Americano - 77mg
  • Green Tea - 25mg
  • White Tea - 15mg

So from that, you can see my point about tea. You’d have to drink 48oz of green tea to equal 8oz of coffee in terms of caffeine content.

How Much Caffeine Is Healthy?

Going back to that bit about cortisol, it’s interesting that the body adapts to morning caffeine consumption by reducing the cortisol effect, but it doesn’t adapt to afternoon coffee and cortisol release remains high.

In contrast, 5 days of caffeine intake at 300 mg/day and 600 mg/day abolished the cortisol response to the initial 9:00 AM caffeine dose, although cortisol levels were again elevated between 1:00 PM and 7:00 PM (p = .02 to .002) after the second caffeine dose taken at 1:00 PM. Cortisol levels declined to control levels during the evening sampling period.

My thinking after looking at all this is that being a non-user is healthier than being a user. I’d never really dug into all of the effects of caffeine other than “energy” and “diuretic,” so this was all pretty interesting. So here’s my take on it all:

  • No more than 2 cups per day (that’s 6-8oz cups, not 12oz or larger mugs). Even better if you don’t drink it daily.
  • Keep your caffeine consumption to the morning. When I have coffee, I’m usually done by 10am.
  • Do not use caffeine to fuel an unhealthy, low-sleep lifestyle. This sets up a feedback loop of disrupted sleep, more caffeine to compensate, and even further sleep loss.
  • Cycle on and off. I go caffeine-free for a couple weeks when I notice that I’m getting immune to the effects of my 2 cups.

Basically, I doubt a cup or two in the morning is going to do any real damage. In fact, timed properly, it may increase sports performance, especially for endurance type activities. If you’re downing a pot everyday, you’re probably excessively stressing your adrenals, keeping your body in a constant state of stress (which we know we don’t need more of in our modern lifestyle), and possibly causing other health issues, such as immune system suppression and vitamin/mineral depletion.

Obviously, if caffeine is affecting your sleep, you’re doing something wrong. And it goes without saying that sugar in your coffee is not doing you any favors either.

Coffee Alternatives

While searching for info for this article, I came across a coffee substitute that supposedly brews and tastes just like coffee. It’s called Teeccino. Anyone ever tried it? If so, what are your thoughts? I’m thinking of checking it out to see what it’s all about.

Teeccino Caffeine-free Herbal Coffee is a delicious blend of herbs, grains, fruits and nuts that are roasted and ground to brew and taste just like coffee.

I think part of the allure of coffee is the morning ritual of making it, smelling it, and drinking it. So perhaps this is a good caffeine-free alternative.

Decaffeinated coffee is another option, but I’m not sure about the process they use to take the caffeine out. I was looking at the Wikipedia page about the decaffeination process …some sound pretty benign, using just hot water or coffee oils. Others use chemical solvents. And I’m not sure how you figure out which method your favorite decaf uses, so I think I’ll either go with regular coffee or no coffee.

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How Much Alcohol Is Healthy?

What prompted me to write about alcohol again? Two things actually…first, it’s the holidays and there are a lot of parties and a lot of opportunities to indulge. Second, I’ve seen some talk that all alcohol does is cause problems from some members of the fitness community. So let’s quickly take a look.

I’m not going to go real in-depth with alcohol here. I’ve touched on alcohol three times before, so here are those three articles if you want a bit more information:

To summarize those three articles, alcohol is a substance that can damage your liver, cause short-term hypertension, decrease testosterone production, increase estrogen production, and cause vitamin deficiencies. But there’s a major caveat to that. You have to drink excessively to do that kind of damage.

Basically, there is a major difference between getting drunk and having a glass of wine with dinner. There’s a major difference between joining friends for a couple beers (and pizza perhaps?) and staying up till 4am taking Jagermeister shots and playing beer pong. And there’s even a major difference between throwing down once or twice a year (complete with waking up hating life and dragging through the next day) and going out like a frat boy every weekend.

Obviously, I don’t advise getting drunk, especially to the point of a hangover. But it happens, even to me. You get to hanging out with friends, things get a little loose, and the next day, you realize that you had about 3 too many. What I’m advising is exactly like what I advised with cheat meals…don’t do it all the time, and if it happens, get back on the wagon and don’t beat yourself up. If you’re hungover every Saturday or Sunday, you should probably re-examine your commitment to treating your body right though.

Don’t Forget The Holiday Survival Guide

The holiday season is upon us, starting Thursday (at least here in the States) with Thanksgiving. The holidays are a time filled with family, friends, and parties. You’ll likely be drinking more, eating worse (and more), and sleeping less. In the interest of not blowing all your hard work, while still enjoying your holidays and the time with relatives and friends you rarely see, check out our Holiday Survival Guide. Don’t let the holidays be a 6 week backwards slide.

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My Caffeine And Alcohol Recommendations

As you can see, I don’t think that you need to 100% give up coffee or alcohol to be healthy. I enjoy both and am unlikely to go completely clean from either. If you stick with the a low intake of both and pay attention to how you feel after having them, there’s no reason that you have to be completely ascetic.

So here are a few additional tips:

  • Don’t drink bad coffee. Skip the swill at work and find a local roaster. As with all other vices, make sure you really enjoy it. You’ll pay more, but it’ll taste much better. Better yet, get a good grinder and grind the beans from your local roaster at home just before you make the coffee. Good coffee for less money.
  • On that note, don’t drink bad beer either. If you are a beer drinker, find good microbrews with some flavor instead of the watered-down brews so many are convinced is “beer”.
  • Opt for wine or distilled spirits to avoid the gluten load of beer. When I drink, it’s typically a good bourbon like Woodford Reserve (hey, I’m from Kentucky…it’s in my blood), vodka (either an infused vodka with club soda or plain vodka with club soda and lime), or wine.
  • Pay more, drink less. Just to reiterate once again…whether it’s alcohol, coffee, chocolate, ice cream, or any other treat, spend more on good stuff that is more flavorful and more satisfying. I’d rather have 1 glass of Woodford Reserve on the rocks than 3 shots of Jim Beam.

While there’s no need for either caffeine or alcohol, there’s also no drawback to a little caffeine or a drink or two sometimes if they tickle your fancy. If you don’t drink either, there’s no reason to start. If you drink one or both, keep it reasonable and you’ll be fine.

And if you’re running around telling people that the lone glass of great single malt scotch is going harm them, you’re a) talking nonsense and b) probably just trying to make yourself feel better about your ascetic lifestyle by showing how much “better” you are than others and how “pure” your “temple” is. Get over yourself.

How much caffeine do you drink? How much alcohol? Do you think either one has a place in a healthy lifestyle?

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