Caffeine is in coffee, tea, sodas, some foods and even medicines. Jack E. James and Michael A. Keane, researchers at the National University of Ireland, characterized caffeine as “the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in history” in their 2007 study of caffeine-extract testing. Anyone who has ever tried to give up that daily cuppa joe has probably encountered the splitting headache and other discomforts that are signs of caffeine withdrawal. But those who stick it out may find the caffeine kick was an illusion, and the health benefits of going caffeine-free are more invigorating than an espresso.
An examination of multiple tests to determine the effects of caffeine extracts, published by Wiley InterScience in 2007, revealed a critical problem -- with the tests. Psychologists at the National University of Ireland who scrutinized testing protocols and results concluded that the apparent benefits of consuming caffeine are actually relief from the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. The researchers noted that most people drink their caffeine in the morning, with gradually decreasing amounts throughout the day and abstinence while sleeping. But the researchers asked study participants to skip their morning coffee and then gave them caffeine extracts or placebos later in the day, as they were entering caffeine withdrawal. Rather than measuring the effect of the stimulant on such indicators as alertness, fatigue and performance, the tests measured relief from the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. The Irish researchers also observed that test participants who didn’t habitually consume caffeine showed no extra alertness or other benefit from the test dosages.
The Bogus Buzz
Scientists looked for evidence of buzz in the brain and found a big headache. Researchers at the University of Vermont and Johns Hopkins University, in a study published in the scientific journal "Psychopharmacology" in 2009, used brain scans, ultrasound and volunteers’ reports to measure caffeine’s effects. They found that eliminating caffeine, which constricts blood vessels, caused those vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow and the release of pain-producing chemicals to the brain. As a result, the volunteers experienced headaches. The withdrawal of caffeine also slowed brainwaves, reported by study participants as fatigue. But researchers found no evidence that a habit of caffeine consumption provided any benefits other than mitigating symptoms of withdrawal.
Caffeine’s Mixed Message
A modest caffeine habit might be helpful or harmful. Dr. Verna Case, professor of biology at Davidson College in North Carolina, points to studies that show coffee drinkers who consume a few cups of coffee or less daily have lower risks of liver disease, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson disease and gallstones. She also notes that different studies highlight increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and irregular heartbeats, as well as the dangers of abrupt deprivation for people suffering from depression. Higher caffeine consumption seemed to exacerbate problems experienced in testing, but even moderate consumption resulted in symptoms of addiction. Definitive conclusions about the virtues and vices of a caffeine habit will require more testing, but one clear result has emerged from studies: Wean yourself from caffeine gradually to minimize unpleasant or harmful withdrawal symptoms.
Benefits of Decaffeination
Although caffeine is a stimulant, its habitual effect seems to be a physiological and possibly psychological dependence. It can cause heartburn, jitters, anxiety, insomnia, upset stomach, fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure, increased kidney activity and dehydration and other unhealthy reactions, according to Oregon Health & Science University. Short-term effects can be alertness, cessation of drowsiness and mood improvement, but those require continued caffeine consumption. Withdrawal from a caffeine habit should be undertaken slowly but could result in a host of beneficial improvements to overall health. It makes sense to check with your health-care provider about how caffeine may be affecting you.