Energy drinks, double shots of espresso and caffeine pills are a lifesaver to sleep deprived college students pulling all-nighters in order to finish research papers that were pushed back until the last minute. However, five deaths and one heart attack that have been allegedly attributed to the energy drink Monster, has spurred the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate these claims in search for any links between the victims and the drink. These unfortunate incidents lead one to question how much caffeine is too much and is caffeine really dangerous enough to be fatal?
With all the myths about caffeine intake that many parents feed their children in order to scare them away from sugary, caffeinated beverages, the line has been blurred between fact and fiction. Despite popular myths, caffeine is not physically addictive nor does it stunt your growth, but it can lead to withdrawal symptoms and therefore if heavy caffeine users immediately stop consuming caffeine, mild to serious side effects can occur for a few days.
Caffeine is a drug. It is the popular mantra that many high school health teachers drill into their student’s heads while sipping on their fourth cup of coffee. The dangers of caffeine may not be common knowledge, but this magic substance cloaked in a Starbucks logo just seems too good to be true. In a survey of 100 New College students on their caffeine consumption, 42 percent responded that they consume seven or more caffeine products in a typical week and 84 percent responded that one of the reasons they consume these products is to stay awake.
According to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, a low caffeine consumption of 20-200 milligrams a day can have positive, mood changing effects such as alertness, energy boosts and sociability, but consuming a dose over 200 milligrams can lead to negative effects such as an increase in irritability, anxiety and nervousness.
“I was probably drinking in the neighborhood of 600 ounces [to] 700 ounces a day,” Associate Dean of Students Tracy Murry said of his past coffee consumption. “I was drinking eight to 10 pots of coffee a day [and] from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed I had a coffee cup with me the whole time.” In his late 20s, Murry was rushed to the hospital due to blackouts and intense chest pains.
“I thought I was having a heart attack,” he said. “They were running EKG’s and everything was coming out just fine and there was no evidence in weakness of heart or anything like that.” When Murry told them how much coffee he had drunk, they immediately turned off the machines and gave him orders to not consume any caffeine for three months.
These days, coffee shop chains dominate the restaurant industry and drinking coffee has become a part of everyday social life.
“It’s familiar, accessible and usually involves an exchange with friends, coworkers, or roommates,” Thesis-student and Coffee Loft barista, Gail Fish said. “I can justify my consumption by its acceptability and associations with more than just staying awake.”
According to HealthSaver’s 2008 Caffeine Survey, Tampa was ranked as the top most caffeinated city in the United States, a surprising “win” over Seattle, home of the first Starbucks, which has a reputation for its coffee consumption. The survey was conducted over the phone in 20 major cities across the country and in addition to coffee, the survey considered tea, sodas, energy drinks, chocolate, pain relievers and caffeine pills as other sources of caffeine consumption. At New College, when asked what caffeinated product students consume most often, 84 percent responded with coffee drinks including beverages such as espressos, cappuccinos and lattes.
In 2012 alone, Monster made over $2 billion in sales and was rated the second most popular energy drink according to Energy Fiend, losing the first place spot by $700 million to Red Bull, which has been ranked as number one since 2006. With famous athletes and sports events being sponsored by brands such as Monster, Rockstar and Red Bull, energy drinks are becoming even more popular. This marketing technique insinuates that if these athletes are willing to represent these brands, these drinks must help with athletic performance and not be detrimental to one’s health.
First-year Daniella Benedi consumes caffeine daily in large amounts.
“I typically drink an energy drink like Monster or RockStar and two or three ounces of Cuban coffee [a day]. Each ounce of Cuban coffee is supposed to have the equivalent caffeine of one cup of American coffee,” she said in an email interview with the Tangent. “I drink a […] ton of caffeine and have noticed severe headaches and insomnia when I forget to drink any.”
Second-year transfer student Joseph Comer has been drinking energy drinks on and off since he was 17. He and his friends discovered a Venice restaurant and coffee house called “24/7” which offered a variety of energy drinks one could buy.
“I started drinking them semi-regularly after that and by the time I turned 19 I was drinking [no] less than four cans of Monster a day, and when I quit smoking it got even worse,” Comer said. “I basically replaced the smoking habit with more energy drinks. When I realized I was spending more [money] on my energy drink habit than my former three-pack-a-day smoking habit by a large margin, I decided to go off caffeine cold-turkey for a while.”
The more Comer has changed his caffeine habits, the more sensitive he has felt towards its effects such as irritability and crashing. He also has experienced vertigo and one heart palpitation, both of which could have been influenced by his energy drink consumption.
First-year Zina Elghnimi does not drink any caffeinated beverages on a regular basis because of the detriment they cause to teeth.
“I […] care a great deal about my teeth and would be rather angry if they were to turn yellow because of a drink,” Elghnimi said. “ A close friend of mine recently became heavily dependent on espresso. Her teeth turned an unsightly shade of brown. Now she’s spending a fortune at the dentist trying to whiten them.”
Caffeine pills have also become a popular solution for a lack in energy or sleep deprivation. Third-year Rosalind Kichler has had a negative experience with these pills when she was in high school. Kichler took the pills in order to stay awake and work on a huge project.
“I took about eight in a six hour window, without sleeping and while drinking coffee the whole time,” she explained in an email.
“I started to get very warm and I couldn’t catch my breath, but apparently my face was very white,” Kichler continued. “I went to lay down and I started thinking about all the work I still needed to [do] during the school day to finish my project. I started crying and couldn’t stop. Eventually a teacher had to call my mom to come pick me up because I was such a disaster.” Kichler passed the project but despite that she bluntly stated that she will “never ever take caffeine pills again.”
In the New College survey mentioned previously, 32 percent of participants responded that if high caffeine consumption was proven to be linked to serious health problems or death, they would probably stop consuming these products. One of the problems with caffeine is the dependence that may come as a result from drinking large amounts on a daily basis.
“It’s annoying that I am dependent on drinking at least two cups a day,” Fish explained in an email interview. “I’m spacey and listless the morning after staying the night at a friend’s house if they don’t have coffee. After a morning cup, I need a second cup two or three hours later. I’ve sat in the library before unable to get anything done until I’ve made a half hour round trip to sit and drink coffee in the Four Winds and return.”
Comer had withdrawal symptoms when he stopped drinking energy drinks all together. “Quitting has sucked worse every time,” he said. “Day-long splitting headaches, no appetite, total inability to stay awake during the day or sleep at night […] no motivation to do work or ability to focus, all for about four or five days. This time I happened to get fairly sick around two days after the last energy drink, which made it worse, but after a few days I felt normal, and now I’m, or at least my wallet, is glad not to be drinking them.”
Murry, who has admitted to only ever drinking coffee, water and the occasional cup of tea has experienced similar issues of withdrawal when he had to quit drinking coffee because of his stint in the hospital.
“I stayed in bed a week [and] did not get out [because] of the headaches and just the pounding and nausea,” he said. “Quitting was much more difficult than I thought it would be and I can’t imagine how hard it would be to quit something harder than coffee.” Murry now drinks about 20 ounces of coffee a day, a huge decrease from his previous 700 ounces, but despite this, he still experiences side effects. “If I miss some coffee I might get a little anxious and I’m sure if I miss more than a day or two I will get headaches and stuff like that,” he paused, “but I haven’t missed any.”