Drug Abuse: Caffeine

Drinking coffee has become such a daily task at this point, that we don’t even pay attention to it anymore. Nothing beats the first coffee of the day, whether you take it hot or cold, early in the morning. But it’s important to know what caffeine is, and what it does to your health.

Caffeine is a psychoactive stimulant drug, luckily not as harmful as other psychoactive stimulants that exist, though it’s a highly dependence-producing drug and some precautions should be taken notice of. Caffeine belongs to a family of stimulant compounds called xanthines. Other types of xanthines can also be found in chocolate, called theobromine, and theophylline found in tea. Theobromine is about one tenth as strong as caffeine and theophylline, which are almost the same strength.

It’s not exactly known when coffee drinking began, but we do know that the first coffee beans Coffea arabica were harvested in Ethiopia, which slowly spread to Yemen and Arabia sometime before the fifteenth century. Coffee has been called “the wine of Islam” since alcohol is prohibited by the Koran, it was viewed as a substitute for alcoholic beverages.

The first drink that comes to mind when you think of Britain is tea, but you might be surprised to hear that coffee became a popular social beverage way before tea. Around the seventeenth century, British coffee houses were popular among men, where they met other intellectuals and argued their perspective points of view. A popular nickname for these coffeehouses were “penny universities” since the conversation there was considered as interesting and stimulating as getting actual education in a university, plus much cheaper.

Coffee houses in colonial America served the same purpose. John Adams, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and their compatriots used to gather at the Green Dragon in Boston for intellectual conversations, and to plan their revolution against Britain. After the Revolutionary War, coffee became the American national drink. By 1860, Americans were consuming three-fourths of the world’s entire production of coffee. But since around 1960 coffee drinking has gradually declined in America, people were now picking soft drinks and energy drinks over it, and the type of coffee being consumed by Americans became more and more sophisticated.

According to our historical records, TEA is the world’s oldest caffeine-containing beverage. The legendary Chinese emperor Shen Nung is credited with its discovery in 2737, along with other medications for asthma and marijuana. Tea is a brew of leaves from the Camelia sinensis plant, a large evergreen tree. Tea contains two xanthines, caffeine and theophylline. Other nonxanthine chemicals in tea are polyphenols, which have beneficial effects in prevention of heart disease, inflammatory disorders, and some forms of cancer, usually found more in green tea compared to black.

Chocolate. Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of chocolate? So, chocolate comes from cocoa bean pods growing on branches of cacao trees. They are native to Mexico and Central America, but are now being grown all over the world. According to the legend chocolate was a gift from an aztec god to give a taste of paradise to humans. Chocolate became a symbol of love in 1615 when a Spanish princess brought chocolate as a gift to her fiancé Louis XII of France, starting the tradition of romantic chocolate. But how is chocolate made?

“Once cocoa beans are roasted, they can be heated ina machine to such temperatures that he natural fat within the beans, called cocoa butter, melts. The result is a deep-colored chocolaty-smelling paste called chocolate liquor. When it later cools and herders, the paste is often called baking chocolate.”

But it’s still too bitter to eat. So some additional ingredients are added to make this delicious dessert edible. Depending on the amount of cocoa in the mixture we get different types of chocolate, such as milk chocolate, dark chocolate, or more. Did you know that white-chocolate in fact is the purest form of cocoa butter with some added ingredients? My whole life I’ve been told that white chocolate is dark chocolate with milk, but apparently it’s pure cocoa butter.

The amounts of xanthines are much smaller in chocolate than tea or coffee. A 1 ounce piece of milk chocolate contains about 6mg of caffeine and 44mg of theobromine, which would add up to around 10mg of caffeine. It’s very much unlikely for chocolate to keep you up all night, unless you consume a copious amount.

Soft drink are one of the major sources of caffeine. USA leads the world per capita consumption of soft-drinks products of nearly 53 gallons annually. A lot of young people are attracted to these drinks and use them as stimulants. See a chart of caffeine content in soft drinks below below:

When taken orally, caffeine is absorbed in about thirty to sixty minutes. Caffeine levels peak in the bloodstream in about one hour, and the reactions in the central nervous system peak in about two hours. The fact that a lot of coffee drinkers feel the instant boost of energy is usually either due to the sugar or a conditioned learning effect. Caffeine stays in the bloodstream from three to seven hours after consumed.

The reason caffeine and other xanthines are so effective is that they have the ability to block the effects of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called adenosine. Usually, adenosine binds to receptors on the surface of cells and produces sleepiness, dilation of blood vessels, and constriction of bronchial passageways. It also protects the body against seizures, stress, lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature.

Caffeine and other xanthines excite the neuronal activity in the brain, with higher doses it travels farther into the body and gets to the spinal cord. This results in a feeling of mental alertness and lack of fatigue. Though studies show that in many cases caffeine gives alertness but doesn’t increase performance. The best known effect is of course the impact on sleep. Caffeine lengthens the time it takes to fall asleep and reduces the quality of sleep. The less coffee you drink, the more it affects you.

There’s a myth that caffeine can sober up a drunk person, but there’s no scientific evidence to support that. The behavioral consequences of alcoholic intoxication might worsen with addition of caffeine. When highly caffeinated drinks are mixed with alcohol it reduces the person’s perception of intoxication, leading them to believe they are more in control that they actually are, raising the risk of more alcohol consumption. See a graph concerning energy drinks below:


“In both males and females without heart disease, the use of caffeinated coffee and the total daily intake of caffeine do not appreciably increase the risk of coronary artery disease or stroke . . . Coffee consumption is strongly associated with cigarette smoking, and increased rates of coronary heart disease in heavy coffee drinkers who smoke occur as a result of cigarette smoking, not the caffeine consumption.”

I’ve heard a lot of people say that coffee might give you a heart attack. Well that’s not entirely true as long as you don’t drink 80oz a day. But a study showed that people who drink 2.5 to 3 cups of caffeinated coffee or 5 to 6 cups of caffeinated tea per day have a have a 69% higher risk of osteoporosis (bone loss and brittleness) than caffeine abstainers.

The fact that women might become infertile or less fertile due to caffeine is completely fake, though there can be potential problems later in pregnancy. More than three cups a day during the first trimester is linked to low birth weight, and more than six cups a day raises the chances of miscarriage. During breastfeeding it’s also advised to be caffeine-free, since the enzymes that break down caffeine in kidneys in adults are not present in newborns, so caffeine stays in the bloodstream for up to 48 hours in a baby.

Too much caffeine can produce toxic effects on the body. Approximately 1,000mg of caffeine, which would be around 10 cups of caffeinated coffee, consumed over a short period of time results in extreme nervousness and agitation, muscle hyperactivity and twitching, profound insomnia, heart palpitations and arrhythmias, gastrointestinal upset, nausea, and diarrhea. This is referred to as caffeinism. Also, If one suffers from a panic disorder consumption of caffeine equivalent to about four or five cups of coffee a day is associated with the onset of panic attacks.

One of the biggest problems concerning caffeine is the physical dependance. A sudden cessation in the intake of coffee or other forms of caffeine results in symptoms such as headache, impaired concentration, drowsiness, irritability, muscle aches, and other flu-like symptoms.

As you can see, drinking coffee is not as bad for you as it is often portrayed. Of course the less caffeine you take in, the better for your body. And developing a dependency on anything is pretty annoying. So have your first coffee of the day, whether hot or cold, and enjoy!


Graphs and Citations:

Levinthal, Charles F. Drugs, Society, and Criminal Justice. Pearson, 2016.

Bonita, Jennifer S.; Mandarano, Michael; Shuta, Donna; and Vinson, Joe (2007). Coffee and cardiovascular disease: In vitro, cellular, animal, and human studies.Julien, Robert M (1998) A primer of drug action. New York: Freeman.

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