What is Caffeine?

ImageLike many college students, I drink a lot of coffee. And when I say “a lot”, I really do mean it. Ask my friends and they will wholeheartedly proclaim that I seem to be under the impression that a dearth of sleep is equal to a deluge of coffee. My breakfast is not complete without a cup of my favorite caffeinated beverage(to which I add sugar, half-and-half, and/or French Vanilla Coffeemate). But that got me thinking about as to what exactly I am ingesting every morning without fail; what actually is caffeine, that chemical compound that helps me stay awake and running on days when I have gotten less than an hour of sleep?

Well, caffeine is a purine alkaloid and also goes by the alias 1, 3, 7-trimethyl-xanthine. The coffee plant creates caffeine in its leaves and in the skin of its fruit. Oddly enough, while the light of day after a long, tiring night prompts many folk to down a cup of Joe, caffeine methylation (a part of caffeine metabolism) is induced by light shining on the pericarp tissues. As the world is aware, coffee and caffeine are stimulants; caffeine acts in such way that it energizes the central nervous system.

As you drink your morning coffee, the caffeine distills out and is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract through the circulatory system and is sent throughout the body; from your small toe to your skull, caffeine is propagated through your system. About 30-60 minutes later, caffeine levels in blood plasma reach a high. The liver is the main organ of caffeine metabolism. The organ oxidizes caffeine down to uric acid after processes of demethylation; methylation processes create caffeine in the coffee plant. The results of the breaking down of caffeine are sent to the kidneys, which process them for excretion. Most caffeine is not excreted as pure caffeine. Pure caffeine can last in the body with a half-life of about 2.5-4.5 hours in adult males; the half-life of caffeine is longer for those under stress.

However, while caffeine is an effective stimulant, drinking coffee comes at a price. Caffeine taken in high quantities, such as over 500-600 mg per day (the equivalent to more than 4 cups of coffee) is highly detrimental in that it causes numerous health issues, including but certainly not limited to anxiety, upset stomach, irritability, and a high heart rate. The body can also become extremely dependent upon caffeine to stay awake. Caffeine can also affect a woman’s fertility in that her Fallopian tubes become weaker. If pregnant, excessive amounts of caffeine can even cause complications since that high volume of caffeine can travel across the placenta and poison the developing fetus. If one is taking certain antibiotics while also consuming caffeine, the antibiotics could affect the rate at which the caffeine is digested; one may have to reduce caffeine consumption in this situation. Also, an overdose of caffeine could involve symptoms including but not limited to anxiety, above-average urination, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and hallucinations.

So, with such drastic negative side effects, you may ask, would coffee be a commonplace beverage found in almost every food service joint? Well, caffeine is safe when ingested in moderation; a caffeine intake of 200 to 300 mg per day is not extremely detrimental. In other words, having less than four cups of coffee per day is alright. While some people do find themselves to be more vulnerable to caffeine than others, it is agreed upon that having 500 to 600 mg of caffeine per day is quite excessive and harmful to one’s health. One must be reasonable and understand limitations when it comes to coffee and caffeine.

So, after reading all sorts of information about caffeine intake and coffee…perhaps tomorrow morning I will skip my Starbucks latte and instead get a good night’s sleep.





Written by Aishwarya Vishwanath.


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