Story last updated at 3/25/2009 - 10:57 am
March contains an impractical amount of holidays and observances including National Noodle Month, Bubble Gum Week, Buzzard Day and even Make Up Your Own Holiday Day. Of these seemingly silly holidays, one observance worth noting is that March is Caffeine Awareness Month. Many may take the opportunity to examine their own caffeine intoxication and dependence level.
WHAT WE'RE WORKING WITH
Caffeine is a botanical compound that is considered a psychoactive drug. This classifies caffeine as a chemical substance that works on the central nervous system in a similar fashion as alcohol, cannabis, anesthesia, cocaine or morphine. The use of drugs in this category may be for recreational or medical reasons and can affect a person's short-term mood, perception, consciousness and behavior.
Caffeine can be found in a variety of incarnations. It is most commonly consumed in liquid form via coffee, tea, soda and energy drinks. If drinking isn't your thing, you can pop a pill, suck on a caffeinated breath mint or pucker up with caffeinated lip balm. There are products on the market like soap, pastries and potato chips, all of which contain a significant dose of the substance. You may also find a small dose of caffeine tucked inside of many over-the-counter pain relievers.
BENEFICIAL OR BAD?
While it may be easy to determine that caffeine has temporary physical effects, it is less obvious whether or not caffeine use can contribute to chronic health conditions. According to Dr. Kristin Cox, ND, caffeine itself isn't necessarily harmful in moderation but most users consume it to cover up underlying health issues.
"I'm not completely opposed to caffeine," Cox said. "In moderation, it's probably fine as an enjoyable beverage. My concern is that people are self-medicating with caffeine. Instead of addressing fatigue, they're just compensating by drinking coffee."
While coffee and tea contain beneficial antioxidants, the drinks can be a medium for potentially harmful additives like creamers, excess sugars and artificial sweeteners. Many people who have unknown dairy allergies may be worsening their conditions by daily consuming coffee with cream.
"These days, people aren't just having a cup of black coffee out of the coffee pot," Cox said. "A lot of them have tons of sugar, fat and dairy. That's a massive injection of calories that people don't really count because they're liquid."
According to a study concluded in 2006, the ingestion of black coffee has been linked to a reduced risk of conditions such as breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, diabetes mellitus type two, cirrhosis of the liver and gout. However, it is also thought to cause problems in iron absorption, which can lead to iron deficiency anemia.
Cox hitched caffeine overuse to conditions such as anxiety, insomnia and heightened PMS symptoms among women. She suggested that many people don't realize how sensitive they may be to caffeine and the drug may still affect them for up to 12 hours after it was consumed.
STUCK ON IT
It is possible to develop a physical dependence on caffeine. As a result of chronic use, the body builds up a tolerance to the drug and negative physical symptoms occur as a result of discontinuing its use.
Withdrawal symptoms may include headaches, irritability, drowsiness, insomnia and body pain. Depending on a person's dependence level, it can take up to five days for withdrawal symptoms to disappear.
The American Psychiatric Association has recognized two caffeine-caused disorders that are a result of overdose, or caffeine intoxication. A caffeine-induced sleep disorder occurs when an individual consumes enough caffeine to severely disturb their sleep. A caffeine-induced anxiety disorder can manifest itself through several symptoms such as anxiety and panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia. Of course, these caffeine-induced conditions are completely avoidable simply by staying clear of caffeine.
"If you have a coffee dependence, you need to address why that is," Cox said. "People don't think fatigue is enough to warrant a visit to the doctor. But for a naturopath, it is a good enough reason to optimize your health."