Benefits and Risks


Take a closer look at caffeine benefits and risks and the effects it has on overall health, as well as sleep.

Thanks to the popularity of energy drinks, caffeine is now omnipresent, but its level of concentration can vary widely. A piece of chocolate may contain as little as 5mg, whereas some energy drinks may contain as much as 160 mg. And for that matter, some medications and diet pills can run as high as 200 mg of caffeine. Buzz city!!!

One of the major problems with caffeine is that it can severely impact sleep patterns. Yes, if you have a morning cup of coffee, 75% of it will clear your body by the time you go to bed. But if you have a couple of cups of drip coffee in the morning, that means you will be going to sleep with some 50 mg still percolating in your veins — more than enough to disrupt the depth and quality of your sleep. And if you drink coffee throughout the day, or as an afternoon pick-me-up, the level in your blood at bedtime will be dramatically higher. So while, yes, you may fall asleep, it is likely the quality of that it will not be up to par because of the caffeine effect on sleep.

Another problem is that caffeine is a diuretic and can dehydrate you. Some experts claim that the fluid you consume in drinking coffee or energy drinks more than compensates for the fluid you lose through extra urination, but the facts don’t bear that out. Claims to the contrary are based on erroneous studies on dehydration and misleading sound bites.

Also, there are at least 32 epidemiological studies of caffeine that have found an increased risk of negative developmental or reproductive outcomes. In other words, studies have linked caffeine to both lowered birth weight and a significant increase in birth defects.

And caffeine is a growing problem for kids. Soda has replaced milk, with the consumption of soft drinks by children doubling in the past 35 years. A 2003 study of Columbus, Ohio middle schoolers found some taking in an astounding 800 milligrams of caffeine a day — more than twice the recommended maximum for adults of 300 milligrams. With the advent of energy drinks in those numbers have only grown. No wonder so many kids are on Ritalin.

So how much caffeine is too much?

According to the Mayo Clinic, for most adults, moderate doses of caffeine — 200 to 300 milligrams (mg), or 2-4 cups of coffee a day — aren’t harmful. But heavy use — more than 500 to 600 mg a day — can cause a whole host of problems, including:

  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Nausea or other gastrointestinal problems
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Muscle tremors
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety

But keep in mind, that recommendation addresses neither the quality of sleep issue nor the issue of how close to bedtime you consume your caffeine.

The benefits of caffeine…

So much for benefits of quitting caffeine. Caffeine also has a bright side. At least six studies have shown that people who drink coffee on a regular basis are up to 80% less likely to develop Parkinson’s, with three studies showing the more they drink, the lower the risk. Other research has shown that drinking coffee can reduce the risk of colon and liver cancer by some 25%, slash the risk of skin cancer by some 40%, drop the risk of liver cirrhosis by 22%, and lower the risk of gallstones by nearly half.

Coffee might even offset some of the damage caused by other vices. Some research indicates that people who smoke and are heavy drinkers have less heart disease and liver damage when they regularly consume large amounts of coffee compared to those who don’t.

There’s also some evidence that coffee may help manage asthma and even control attacks when medication is unavailable, stop a headache, boost mood, and even prevent cavities.

And of course, caffeine is widely used for its stimulating and alertness properties, as well as its ability to enhance athletic performance.

Note: not all of the benefits associated with drinking coffee or tea can necessarily be attributed to caffeine. In many cases, they might be specific to the antioxidants found in those beverages.

Speaking of coffee, did you know that it may be able to ward off depression too? Read more of our mental health articles.