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Are Caffeine Pills Bad for You?

by
author image Aimee Cebulski
Aimee Cebulski is a writer and photographer in San Diego, Calif. Her work has been featured in travel, business and lifestyle magazines, websites and photo galleries. She is the author of Kickstarter for Dummies and The Finding 40 Project (www.finding40.net), a book about women turning 40 years old around the world.
Are Caffeine Pills Bad for You?
A man holds a small pill next to a glass of water. Photo Credit Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Lightwavemedia/Getty Images

We've all had that mid-afternoon slump or that early morning grogginess where you just need “a little something” to get going and feel more awake. For millions, that involves caffeine in the form of coffee, tea, soda and even caffeine pills. Now, pure caffeine powder is widely available as an alternative. But are these supplements a good idea? Where and when should the best be used? We'll examine some recent studies and weigh in with an expert on the subject.

What Are Caffeine Pills?

The FDA classifies caffeine as both a drug and a food additive, and you might be surprised at all the places where it turns up. Wonder why you feel cranky when you try to quit caffeine? It's a real withdrawal because caffeine can be addictive; your body wants that rush. For those unable to consume caffeine in traditional forms (coffee, tea, soda), caffeine pills or powders offer a convenient fix of this potentially health-boosting substance. Popular caffeine pills brands like Vivarin, Cafcit and Alert contain caffeine citrate, also known as 1,3,7-Trimethylpurine-2,6-dione, which is dehydrated caffeine mixed with citric acid and sodium citrate. That is the active ingredient, and the rest of the ingredients are mainly fillers, coloring, preservatives and coating that are all considered GRAS (generally recognized as safe) by the FDA, including carnauba wax, stearic acid and titanium dioxide.

What Is the Correct Dosage?

A "standard" dose of caffeine is approximately 200-400 milligrams per day (about the amount in 2-4 cups of coffee or up to five soda cans). However, not the same amount is right for everyone since that amount is metabolized differently based on your individual body makeup and genetic background. If you are going to start taking caffeine as a daily supplement, definitely discuss the dosage with your physician first. As of 2014, the FDA has been warning consumers about the potential overdoses on pure caffeine powder, saying: “These products are essentially 100 percent caffeine. A single teaspoon of pure caffeine is roughly equivalent to the amount in 25 cups of coffee.”

Can You Overdose on Caffeine Pills?

Yes, it is possible to overdose on caffeine, especially if you are taking it in pill form. The maximum daily dose should not be over 400 milligrams according to Dr. Mark Jabro, an internal medicine specialist with Sharp Health Care in San Diego. He adds that pregnant women should consume no more than 200 milligrams. When you take too much, you may experience rapid heart rate, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, tremors, stomach upset and dizziness and may experience severe overdose symptoms, including death. A New York Times article from May of this year looked at several cases of caffeine overdose, mostly by young people taking doses of powdered caffeine to get through a busy schedule or tough workout. These over-the-counter substances are widely unregulated, with the individual not realizing they may be getting the caffeine equivalency of dozens of cups of coffee in one dose.

Uses for Caffeine Pills

The jump you get in heart rate and blood pressure from a caffeine boost can perk up mental alertness (popular with long-haul drivers, for example). But beyond just alertness, there are a number of reasons why people use caffeine in their daily lives. Caffeine can also be beneficial for things like weight loss. Jabro says that "caffeine can increase the resting metabolic rate and suppress appetite and also increase the levels of adrenaline, which signals the breakdown of fat tissue into energy." He points out that while the effects are modest, it can be helpful alongside a healthy diet and exercise program. You may also benefit from a boost in athletic performance from caffeine since it might actually make you feel like you don't have to exert as much effort to get through your workout, Jabro adds.

Benefits of Caffeine

For years, studies have touted the various benefits you get from caffeine primarily by looking at coffee consumption as a benchmark. However, is it really the caffeine leading to these benefits? Coffee contains a thousand different ingredients, and a Harvard Health Letter review even highlights the fact that some studies show the same results between caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee. For instance, a study in Diabetes Care looked at how caffeine (through coffee) may help with insulin sensitivity, a main concern for anyone managing their diabetes. The study indicated that increased adrenaline levels coming from caffeine may be the contributing factor to this improvement. Research has also shown that caffeine is protective against things like depression and suicide due to the increased adrenaline, according to Dr. Jabro. Finally, studies have also pointed to the benefits of caffeine when it comes to degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's Disease and Multiple Sclerosis. However, it is important to note once again that there have been no definitive findings on whether these health benefits come from just the caffeine or the cumulative effects of all ingredients in coffee, such as antioxidants. Evidence is lacking on the effects of just caffeine pills or powders alone.

When Should You Not Consume Caffeine?

While there may be many benefits to caffeine, it should not be used by people with several different health conditions, including: Uncontrolled hypertension (high blood pressure), cardiac arrhythmia, seizure disorder, severe liver or kidney disease, insomnia, anxiety/panic disorder, unstable coronary disease, recent heart attack or stroke and gastric ulcers. You also might find yourself being riskier when you drink alcohol. Dr. Jabro points to a study from the Academy of Emergency Medicine that highlights the risk of alcohol-related negative consequences when you mix caffeine with alcohol. You might not ever be inclined to order a Red Bull with Vodka, but if you pop a caffeine pill and sip a Chardonnay you could be faced with the same effect. Many drugs actually increase caffeine's effect, meaning you could suffer from things like lightheadedness, rapid heart rate and even fainting with little to no warning. Popular antibiotics Cipro and Enoxacin, along with muscle relaxer Zanaflex, can lead to caffeine overdose symptoms. Caffeine limits the effectiveness of other medications and can even render them harmful; mixing caffeine with Lithium can cause Lithium toxicity in the blood leading to nausea and tremors.

The Bottom Line

When taking caffeine pills or pure caffeine powder, take care to consume the recommended dose and not more. If you're concerned about side effects or contraindications with other drugs or supplements you're taking, be sure to check with your doctor to determine if this is the right option for your health needs.

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