Caffeine is the number one vice of most people, and there’s a lot of confusion surrounding whether it is good or bad. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the misconceptions that exist around caffeine, and dig into the major pros and cons of including caffeine in our daily diet.

Really, we can’t talk about caffeine without touching first on coffee. Coffee is the most commonly consumed beverage after water, and a typical cup contains roughly 100 mg of caffeine. It also provides a wide variety of nutrients and antioxidants. For you coffee drinkers out there, the bottom line is this: for many people, coffee can be a healthy part of a balanced diet, and even offer some real benefits. However, if you suffer from anxiety, insomnia, or certain other conditions, you might need to reconsider.

Whats in a cup of coffee?

While many other sources of caffeine exist, that morning cup of coffee tops the list. Caffeine is the number one ingredient of coffee, and a typical eight ounce cup contains between 100-200 mg. Aside from caffeine, coffee also offers some important nutrients such as vitamins B1, 2 and 3, folate, manganese, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus. Coffee is also full of free radical-fighting antioxidants, such as polyphenols and hydrocinnamic acids.

Benefits of caffeine:

Increased Brain Function

Studies show that caffeine leads to increased activity of norepinephrine and dopamine, which in turn leads to increased neuron activity in the brain. In healthy individuals, this can boost concentration, memory, reaction time and energy levels. In fact, studies point to caffeine even being helpful in Alzheimers Disease prevention and reduced symptoms of depression.

Increased Sports and Exercise Performance

Due to it’s adrenaline-boosting properties, coffee has been shown to boost exercise and sports performance in both athletes and gym-goers alike. Having a cup of coffee about a half hour before a workout or an event can increase your performance.

Weight Loss

According to a study published in the Journal of American Clinical Nutrition, caffeine consumption can actually increase our metabolic rate by up to 11%! Coffee-drinkers might burn more fat, but studies also suggest that this effect is less notable in long-term coffee drinkers.

Nutrient Benefits (in coffee)

Depending on your level of consumption, the vitamins and minerals in coffee mentioned earlier can actually add up in your daily diet and provide benefits. While this is far from ideal, the reality is that your typical coffee drinker in the United States actually takes in more nutrients from their coffee than from fruits and vegetables on a daily basis!

Risks of caffeine:

Increased Anxiety

For those who are prone to or already suffer from anxiety, caffeine should definitely be avoided. One study concluded that excess caffeine (and the amount of caffeine a person can handle varies) causes panic attacks, heart palpitations, and increased anxiety.

Getting Addicted

Hands down, caffeine is absolutely addictive for most people. Actually, most regular caffeine drinkers become tolerant to its effects over time, and therefore drink more and more. Caffeine addiction (as with any other drug), leads to withdrawal symptoms once you try to stop, such as headaches, fatigue, irritability, and decreased cognitive function.

Negative Impact on the Adrenal Glands

Caffeine prompts our adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline, which acts as a stimulant. The adrenal glands are two grape-sized glands located by our kidneys, and hold the enormous responsibility of producing and releasing our stress hormones, as needed. If we drink caffeine in excess (and/or are in a period of increased stress), our adrenals can become fatigued, leading to a host of problems such as decreased immune function, lowered sex drive, exhaustion and more. While it might feel counter-intuitive, in periods of increased stress, we should drink less caffeine.

Empty calories

Aside from coffee, other popular caffeinated beverages include soda and energy drinks, which are packed with sugar, artificial sweeteners, colorings, dangerous additives and a myriad of chemicals. These added ingredients in your favorite caffeinated drinks are likely causing far more harm than the caffeine, itself.

Healthier sources of foods and drinks that naturally contain caffeine include yerba mate, black, green and white teas, kola nuts and dark chocolate.

For you science nerds out there, you might be interested to know that caffeine is first absorbed in the small intestine, and then metabolized in the liver cells prior to distribution amongst bodily tissues about 45 minutes after ingestion. Its’ half life is typically 3-5 hours in adults; however, in some this time is greatly increased, even up to 80 hours (specifically in pregnant women).

In conclusion, whether or not to drink caffeine is a personal choice, and one that you should make with a good understanding of the pros and cons. While it can definitely provide some benefits, it’s also not for everyone. And if you do choose to indulge, be sure to choose more healthful options in moderation, such as coffee, tea and yerba mate, while avoiding sugar and chemical-laden options such as sodas and energy drinks.

The bottom line is this: for many people, caffeine (in foods and beverages where it naturally occurs) can offer some real benefits. However, if you suffer from insomnia, anxiety or adrenal fatigue, it probably isn’t doing you any favors. Always remember to listen to your body, and try to keep your caffeine intake moderate.

Rachel Fiske, NC, CPT-NASM Rachel Fiske is a Holistic Nutrition Consultant and graduated from Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition in Berkeley, California, and a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Rachel works with clients individually via skype, focusing on issues of weight management, GI problems, hormonal imbalances, fatigue and more via a whole foods diet and lifestyle changes. Consultations include diet journal analysis, individualized menu planning, and herbal/supplementation protocols.