Caffeine is an Addictive Mind-Altering Drug
Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in the world and over 80% of Americans consume some form of the chemical daily—whether it’s from tea, coffee, or soda. Caffeinated drinks have been around for most of written history and they’re probably not going away anytime soon. Most societies embrace at least one form of caffeine and after a while, it’s easy to forget that it’s actually a drug.
Caffeine is a psychoactive drug
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant—a psychoactive drug that causes increased alertness, faster locomotion, and other mental and physical changes. “Psychoactive” tends to be associated with drugs that cause visual hallucinations but it really just means that the chemical affects a person’s mental state. Both caffeine and cannabis are mild psychoactive stimulants; alcohol is a depressant or “downer.”
Many people mistakenly believe that caffeine is somehow safer than “real drugs,” most likely due to its legality compared to drugs such as cannabis, tobacco, and alcohol. In reality, large amounts can be dangerous and people have died from caffeine overdoses. However, it would be hard to overdose in its most common forms: drinking coffee, tea and soda. Most overdoses occur through improper dosing of caffeine powders, pills or similar supplements. Just like any drug, caffeine can also react with medications. In one study, researchers found that the effects of caffeine lasted longer when combined with certain kinds of birth control. Caffeine also enhances the effects of painkillers, can be used to treat specific medical problems (including pulmonary fibrosis and pancreatitis), and can cause withdrawal symptoms when consumption suddenly stops. While relatively safe, caffeine is technically an addictive mind-altering drug.
Goats had nothing to with the discovery of coffee beans and caffeine
There’s a popular legend about a farmer who discovered coffee beans after his goats ate the seeds of coffee plants and became hyperactive. It’s a cute story but there’s little hard evidence on how coffee (and caffeine in general) was discovered. The goat story appears to have been fabricated—just like the story of a Chinese emperor who accidentally discovered tea when leaves fell into some boiling water. In reality, the first signs of coffee drinking are from south Arabia in the middle of the fifteenth century.
As for tea, the earliest records are from Native Americans and ancient Chinese writings. Tea has a complicated past, however, and historians tend to disagree on who discovered it first. There are also a number of beverages called “tea” and the word is sometimes used arbitrarily. Herbal tea, for example, doesn’t contain any tea leaves. These brews also lack caffeine and offer few, if any, noticeable health benefits. It’s unlikely that tea had a single discoverer or inventor—it was most likely brewed by multiple cultures around the same time.
Coffee and chocolate are related
Thanks to genomic sequencing, we now know a lot more about how animals and plants evolved. As it turns out, coffee plants and cocoa trees most likely share a common ancestor. Cocoa contains theobromine, a chemical compound that’s nearly identical to caffeine.
In both cases, the plants began producing the bitter compounds in an effort to deter insects and other predators. Caffeine is a well-known pest deterrent–coffee grounds can be used to repel slugs, caterpillars, snails, and other pests. Both coffee beans and cocoa beans taste extremely bitter to animals when raw and require preparation before eating. While caffeine and related compounds worked to deter animals from eating plants for a long time, human ingenuity finally brought us chocolate and brewed coffee.
There are health benefits—in moderation
Drinking a few cups of coffee or tea can actually be good for you. In one study, researchers found that drinking coffee could help prevent certain forms of cancer. Daily coffee or tea consumption was also associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Both green and black teas provide benefits but scientists have generally found green teas to be superior. On the other hand, researchers have come up short when looking for similar benefits in non-caffeinated teas—suggesting that the caffeine is providing health benefits, not the tea leaves.
In studies that didn’t limit research to a single beverage, researchers found that pure caffeine could reduce the chance of having a heart attack. Scientists have also found evidence showing that caffeine can help prevent Parkinson’s disease, type-2 diabetes, and dementia. There are a few potential negatives, as with any drug. Heavy caffeine consumption is linked with a higher chance of miscarriage in pregnant women. It can also cause insomnia and physical withdrawal symptoms. Other negative but commonly reported “side effects” have zero evidence backing them up—caffeine doesn’t cause dehydration, for example. There is also no link between caffeine intake and impulsive or unusual behaviors. As one team of researchers put it, “Given the spectrum of conditions studied and the robustness of many of the results, these findings indicate that coffee can be part of a healthful diet.”
Caffeine is accepted by most of modern society and few Americans go more than a day without drinking a caffeinated beverage. While caffeine has a multitude of positive health effects and an interesting history, it’s important to remember that it is a stimulant. Like any drug, it can be damaging in excess or when combined with specific medications. For the most part, however, caffeine appears to be safe and even beneficial when consumed in moderation.
photo: Nina A.J. (cc)
sources: sciencedirect.com, sciencedirect.com, books.google.com, bmj.com, atsjournals.org, tabriz.ir, the-scientist.com, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, nature.com, springer.com, annualreviews.org, annualreviews.org, oxfordjournals.org, wku.edu