Every day, more than 90% of adults in America consume some form of caffeine.
Most of them switch to coffee. Others are looking for soda, tea or energy drinks.
So what effect does American habit have on our health?
Spectrum Health nutritionist Kristi Veltkamp opens our question.
Is Caffeine Harmful to You?
Short answer: It depends, Veltkamp said.
Caffeine, a natural stimulant, can actually have some health benefits.
These include: improved mood and brain function, reduced risk of depression, reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease, and improved liver health. It may even help with a little bit of insulin sensitivity, he said.
And coffee or tea – whether or not it contains caffeine – provide beneficial phytochemicals that have been shown to reduce oxidative stress (free chemicals that damage cells and increase inflammation) and improve the gut biomass.
Green tea in particular contains polyphenols, which can be good for lowering cholesterol and promoting weight loss.
But the big question to consider is how caffeine affects you, which can be very different from how it affects someone else.
“There is a genetic difference between people,” he said. “Some people put up with it very well and have no effect, while others can get nervous and get headaches and can’t sleep.”
The acidity of coffee can also irritate the sensitive stomach, cause heartburn and worsen the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and reflux disease.
“You always have to listen to your body,” Veltkamp said. “I’m one of those people who can’t stand it.”
What does caffeine offer?
It’s very important to consider what you enjoy with your caffeine, Veltkamp said.
Do you add cream and sugar to your coffee? It adds calories, especially in coffee drinks such as lattes, suede and cappuccino.
Do you drink soda? It is added sugar. Diet soda? It is an artificial sweetener.
And energy drinks? They are a red flag, Veltkamp said.
First, many have more than the recommended daily amount of caffeine. Second, they may contain artificial sweeteners as well as megadoses of B vitamins that no one needs.
“I would never recommend them,” Veltkamp said. “If you’re really looking for energy, any nutritionist will tell you to eat healthy, sleep and exercise.”
How much is too much?
The risks of negative side effects from caffeine consumption increase as the amount increases, Veltkamp said.
The recommended maximum for most adults is 400 milligrams of caffeine a day – and up to 200 milligrams at a time.
For reference, some energy drinks contain 400 milligrams per serving. You get about 100 milligrams of caffeine in an 8-ounce cup of coffee, 50 milligrams of black tea, 30 milligrams of green tea, and 50 milligrams of soda can.
“Most people drink more than a cup in one serving,” he said.
In fact, given the large sizes offered in cafes, “it’s hard to remember what 8 ounces would even look like,” he said.
The Starbucks short cup weighs 8 ounces and the grande 16 ounces.
If you get too much caffeine, you may experience negative side effects such as increased insomnia, anxiety and higher blood pressure.
Remember that pregnant and breastfeeding women should discuss caffeine consumption with their doctor. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends limiting your daily caffeine intake to 200 milligrams a day or about two cups of coffee.
Certain medications also affect your recommended daily caffeine intake, so check with your doctor.
What about kids and caffeine?
Veltkamp urged caution with children using caffeine.
The recommended maximum daily caffeine intake for children is based on body weight – 2.5 milligrams per 2.2 kg or about 50 milligrams for a 50 kg child.
“If you’re a smaller person, caffeine affects you more,” he said.
He also urged parents to discuss the risks of consuming energy drinks with teenagers. They can easily get too much caffeine if they drink it regularly.
How can I stop or reduce?
Veltkamp encourages people to reflect on their relationship to caffeine and ask questions.
Has this become an addiction? Do I just drink caffeinated drinks or do I also drink plenty of water all day? Am I sleeping enough – and is it a quality dream?
If you decide to stop or reduce your caffeine, Veltkamp will suggest weaning gradually over a period of time to avoid withdrawal symptoms such as headache, fatigue, depression and general nausea.
So if you’re one of the 90% for whom caffeine is a critical part of your day, it usually doesn’t pose a health risk.
But keep an eye on the amount you get and how you feel about it. Talk to your doctor if you are worried.