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Many of us can’t imagine starting the day without caffeine. A variety of specialty espresso beverages like lattes, cappuccinos, and macchiatos make experiencing that morning jolt flavorful, sweet, and exhilarating. Coffee and tea not only feel warm, familiar, and comfortable but can also give the caffeine boost many are craving, too.

Regardless, when the caffeine hits, it usually feels like the day can begin. That’s because when caffeine enters the central nervous system, it activates the parts of the brain that are involved in executive memory, attention, concentration, and planning.

Sipping on a peppermint mocha or a gingerbread latte not only tastes delicious but according to NewScientist, it also “activates the prefrontal cortex by speeding up reaction time and improving short-term memory.” A psychoactive drug, caffeine is the most widely consumed of the classification of drugs that includes cocaine, MDMA, and LSD. There’s no reason to freak out though. While caffeine affects the same parts of the brain as these drugs, it affects the brain much differently than illicit drugs. Like most substances, some positives and negatives come along with caffeine consumption.

What is Caffeine?

Caffeine chemical formula on chalkboard with coffee beans

Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it increases alertness, reduces fatigue, and can even improve athletic performance. Chemically speaking, caffeine is a purine alkaloid that can be found in the leaves and fruits of some plants. Coffee beans, tea leaves, and cacao are the most recognizable, and all naturally contain caffeine. Although soda previously contained caffeine through the kola nut, these days synthetic caffeine is used. Around 60 plant species contain caffeine.

While caffeine consumption in moderation is typically harmless, people can have different reactions and sensitivities. Depending on genetic predispositions like race and gender, caffeine can have a detrimental effect on people. One study found that women had blood pressure changes when caffeine was imbibed. Age is also a factor, and although there are no restrictions on caffeine, giving children caffeinated beverages isn’t recommended. According to Johns Hopkins, caffeine intake can cause “increased anxiety, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, acid reflux, and sleep disturbance” in children.

All caffeinated beverages aren’t created equally. A typical cup of coffee contains around 95mg of caffeine. An energy drink comes in second with 74mg, a shot of espresso has around 64mg, and lastly, a cup of tea contains about 27mg of caffeine.

Plus, caffeine, like most other things in excess, can become toxic. Vox claims that “around 30 cups of coffee in quick succession could potentially be fatal.” Depending on weight, age, and gender, the amount of caffeine consumed may be higher or lower for a fatal dose. Liquid and powdered caffeine sold as energy supplements could only take a few teaspoons to be lethal. Although it’s uncommon, a 2018 study found that 92 people died from caffeine overdose that year.

People Who Shouldn’t Consume Caffeine

Coffee beans lined up as a sign for pregnant women

People who have medical conditions such as GERD, anxiety, and a list of other ailments, are recommended to steer clear of caffeinated beverages. Caffeine can exacerbate anxiety symptoms in some people. Nervousness, fast heart rate, sweating, fatigue, insomnia, and gastrointestinal issues are all symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Adding caffeine, with side effects including many of those same symptoms, anxiety, and nervousness can worsen. In a small study, panic attacks were observed in a majority of participants with anxiety disorder after given caffeine, as opposed to the control group of participants with anxiety who were given a caffeine-free solution.  

Along with people with anxiety, pregnant women should avoid or limit their caffeine consumption. Most experts agree that 200 mg, (around two mugs of coffee) is safe. However, studies are mostly inconclusive because of ethical considerations when including pregnant women in scientific studies. Caffeine can cross the placenta, and some studies show that in animals, low birth weight and even miscarriage can be a result of consuming caffeine at higher than recommended levels. 

Decaf vs. Caffeine-Free

vector illustration of coffee beans with restriction sign for caffeine free and decaffeinated drinks concept

When beginning the journey to a life free of caffeine, it’s important to know the differences in labeling. Decaffeinated and caffeine-free are not the same. While caffeine-free is naturally devoid of caffeine, decaf products still contain some caffeine. Decaffeinating beverages involves soaking, steaming, and diffusing coffee beans or tea leaves. Caffeine is polar and water-soluble, so it’s fairly simple to remove.

Ways to Curb the Cravings

The effects of caffeine on the brain image from coffee beans, cardboard and white paper

Whether you suffer from an affliction or just want to try a life free of stimulants, there are many ways to curb caffeine cravings. Eventually, the cravings will go away, but until then changing up routines is key. If passing by the coffee shop on your daily commute is a trigger, take a new route. If drinking a mocha and catching up with a friend is a favorite activity, take a brisk walk with them instead. Likely, the social aspect is as important as the mocha. 

Changing routines, by exercise is a great way to start the day and get energy levels and alertness up, just like a cup of coffee would. Exercise will release endorphins which will improve mood, promote better sleep, and won’t have the side effects of caffeine.  

Take it Slow

Decaf concept written on coffee beans and jute canvas fabric textile

When planning to stop drinking caffeine, a slow approach is best. Switching to decaffeinated beverages first, and then caffeine-free drinks will curb some of the side effects. Caffeine withdrawal can include headache, irritability, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. Substituting decaf versions of regular coffee, tea, and espresso drinks can help decrease caffeine consumption. 

Alternatives to Caffeinated Beverages

Woman's hand holding a red cup of coffee. With a beautiful winter manicure. Drink, fashion, morning

Depending on how much caffeine is normally consumed, decreasing caffeine consumption can take a while. However, there are several alternative beverages to substitute in daily tea and coffee drinking rituals. Drinking herbal tea is a wonderful way to decrease caffeine intake. Naturally caffeine-free, rooibos, chamomile, and lemongrass tea have relaxing and anxiety-reducing properties. Adding honey and lemon to herbal tea help sweeten the earthy flavor if needed.  

Warm lemon water is another beverage that promotes health and can help curb caffeine dependence. Instead of reaching for that hot cup of coffee, drink warm lemon water to rehydrate and add vitamin C to your morning routine.

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