If you pay attention to the news, you probably hear all sorts of conflicting things about the healthiness or unhealthiness of caffeine. Every time there is a new study, the news tends to report the most sensational details without taking the full results into account. Hence, the public perception about caffeine can be rather confused. For followers of natural health, in particular, knowing what to take from all this information is difficult. Is naturally occurring caffeine a helpful, harmless stimulant, is it to be shunned, or is the answer somewhere in between?
Benefits of caffeine
There are bad things about caffeine, but let us start with the good. For the lover of coffee, there are some very obvious benefits that cannot be denied. To some people, a perfectly cultivated, perfectly grounded, well-brewed cup of coffee is among the tastiest things in the world. And there is no denying one thing: that caffeine is an effective stimulant. It gives you a jolt to start your day, and it can be a valuable pick-me-up later on.
But the stimulant effect is not the only good thing about caffeine. Studies have uncovered numerous benefits and potential benefits-so many, in fact, that we cannot list them all here. But perhaps most interesting is the growing body of research supporting caffeine’s beneficial effects on the brain. Short-term, caffeine has been shown to improve memory and cognitive processes, and it improves performance in all kinds of mentally demanding tasks. Long-term, it can help reduce the risk and symptoms of diseases such as Parkinson’s and dementia.
Meanwhile, additional research has shown caffeine can have long-term benefits in reducing risk factors for many other conditions, including type-2 diabetes, some types of heart disease, and stroke. The science is still new for many of these developments-and the benefits may be partly related to other ingredients found in caffeinated substances such as coffee and chocolate-but it is clear that caffeine is not all bad.
Drawbacks of caffeine
Moderate amounts of coffee have not been linked to any serious medical conditions, so otherwise healthy adults can have a cup or two a day without worrying about it. When consumed in excess, however, coffee can begin to negatively affect one’s well-being.
The most common complaint involving caffeine is insomnia. Caffeine can stay in the body for many hours, so even if you stop drinking it after the late afternoon, it can continue to affect you into the night hours. If you drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages and find you have had trouble sleeping, you might be surprised to find your sleep greatly improved simply by cutting out caffeine.
And in addition to insomnia, there are other side effects of excessive caffeine use, including:
- Muscle tightness
- Painful stomach
- Excessively fast heart rate
- Spasms and tremors
Everyone is affected by caffeine differently. Some can have many cups of coffee per day without experiencing any unpleasant side effects, while some may experience multiple side effects after drinking a single caffeinated soda.
Even though caffeine has been shown to be at least unharmful and potentially beneficial, many natural-health devotees still find something vaguely impure about caffeine. After all, even though caffeine is naturally occurring, there are other types of natural energy-boosters that provide more than just a temporary kick. A balanced diet full of good fruits and vegetables is the best way to get high levels of energy, and without the shortcuts.
There are a few easy ways to cut back, if not quit. One is to gradually reduce the number of cups of coffee or other caffeinated beverages you have per day (quitting cold turkey can be a shock). And if the cups of coffee are important guideposts through your day, you can make the cups smaller or switch to natural decaf (which does have a little caffeine).
Many people find it useful to switch from coffee to other hot beverages, which may nor may not be caffeinated. Green tea, for instance, gives you that nice, warm feeling that coffee does. Plus, most varieties have a little caffeine along with a good dose of antioxidants. And remember, a complete health picture that includes a good diet and plenty of exercise will make it easier for you to cut out the crutch that caffeine provides.
By Lisa Pecos