Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D.

High Octane Women

I'll Take a Double Mocha Iced Trenta ... To Go, Of Course

What do you really know about the amount of caffeine you're consuming?

Posted Feb 08, 2011

According to the Mayo Clinic, "For most people, moderate doses of caffeine--200 to 300 milligrams, or about two to four cups of brewed coffee a day--aren't harmful." In comparison, "heavy" caffeine use is described as over 500 milligrams per day, or about four to seven cups of coffee. Easy enough, right?

Not exactly. How many of you know how much caffeine is in that grande, venti, or trenta you pick up each morning from Starbucks? Don't feel bad. Few do. But a 20-ounce double espresso can contain upwards of 200 milligrams of caffeine. If this was the only caffeine you consumed in a day, that would be fine, but few coffee lovers stop at one cup. Plus, coffee isn't the only thing we consume that contains caffeine. Got a headache? Well, if you take Excedrin, Anacin, or even plain old aspirin, you're taking caffeine. Like your tea and chocolates during the day? Yep. Caffeine. Energy drinks? Please. Some energy drinks have over 500 milligrams of caffeine per serving. How else would a drink give you that much energy in one can? In addition, some weight control aids, such as Dexedrin, have up to 200 milligrams of caffeine. Even certain cold remedies (Dristan, Triaminicin) and some prescription medications (Soma, Darvon) contain caffeine. 

Why am I telling you this? Because too much caffeine can cause side effects that actually mimic the symptoms of stress and make it harder rather than easier to get through the day and night. These symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Irritability
  • Nausea or gastrointestinal problems
  • Headaches

In fact, caffeine's interference with sleep can create a vicious cycle. For example, you have too much on your plate so you drink coffee during the day to keep you going. Millions of people do this, right? Yes. But when you have a lot of caffeine in your system and you try to fall asleep, the caffeine keeps you awake longer, which shortens the amount of sleep you get each night. Caffeine also tends to increase the number of times you wake up during the night, and it interferes with deep sleep. So when you wake up the next morning, you're dragging, which causes you to immediately go for that cup of coffee to get you going again.

So what's the best way to break this cycle and curb your caffeine intake to get you to that in moderation point? The Mayo Clinic offers these tips:

  • Avoid caffeine eight hours before bedtime. Although the body doesn't store caffeine, it can take hours to eliminate it (and its effects) from your system.
  • Avoid an abrupt decrease in caffeine as it can cause caffeine withdrawal symptoms, which include headaches, fatigue, and irritability. 
  • Keep tabs on your daily caffeine intake. Read labels carefully, and even then, you may be underestimating because not all foods list caffeine as an ingredient. For example, chocolates generally do not.
  • Cut back on your caffeine intake gradually. For example, you may want to start by drinking one less can of soda or cup of coffee each day, which will help your body adjust to the lower levels and lessen the withdrawal effects.
  • If you're craving the taste of what you're cutting down on, get decaf. Most decaffeinated drinks look and taste the same as their caffeinated counterparts.
  • Make it quick or herbal. Less brewing time equates to less caffeine, or choose herbal teas, which don't contain caffeine.
  • Look for caffeine-free pain relievers. Some over-the-counter pain relievers contain as much as 130 milligrams in a standard dose. 

Without question, caffeine has its benefits. But if you're consuming so much that it's causing you to lose sleep, lose your temper, lose your calm, and lose your concentration, then you're defeating its purpose, aren't you?

And for all you serious, die hard, real coffee enthusiasts, I'll leave you with a little coffee humor from humor columnist Dave Barry ...

It is inhumane, in my opinion, to force people who have a genuine medical need for coffee to wait in line behind people who apparently view it as some kind of recreational activity. I bet this kind of thing does not happen to heroin addicts. I bet that when serious heroin addicts go to purchase their heroin, they do not tolerate waiting in line while some dilettante in front of them orders a hazelnut smack-a-cino with cinnamon sprinkles. ~Dave Barry

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

Dr. Bourg Carter is the author of the newly released book, High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

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Resources used for this article:

Health Day: News for Healthier Living at http://consumer.healthday.com/Article.asp?AID=649297 (last accessed February 8, 2011).

Elaine Magee, "Caffeine Shockers: Products Surprisingly High in Caffeine" at WebMD http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/caffeine-shockers-products-surprisingly-high-in-caffeine (last accessed February 8, 2011).