Jury still out on effects of caffeine
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Durban - Two years after the death of a young New Zealand woman a decision has finally been taken about whether her death was caused by the excessive consumption of a sugary drink.
Natasha Harris, 31, apparently consumed more than three litres of Coca-Cola a day. She died of a heart attack.
In spite of damning pathology reports, a call for mandatory health warnings on soft drinks labels has been declined.
According to a report by the Associated Press (CBS News) a pathologist giving expert testimony said that excessive cola consumption “can be dramatically symptomatic, and there are strong hypothetical grounds for this becoming fatal in individual cases”.
Declining to provide warnings on the product has caused an uproar with watchdog groups across the world. In Germany, consumer advocate groups are demanding health warnings on products containing caffeine.
In South Africa, manufacturers such as Alpecin Caffeine Shampoo are voluntarily adding warnings to their labelling.
Here, as in most countries, caffeine is widely accepted as part and parcel of daily life. Few of us realise that it is present in products other than coffee and these days it’s creeping into more products than we’re aware of.
“This is a problem,” says specialist psychiatrist Dr Shaquir Salduker, at Netcare St Augustines Hospital in Durban.
He says, “In vulnerable people caffeine can elevate anxiety levels and in many cases can precipitate panic attacks – which can mimic heart attacks and asthma attacks.
“Most people don’t realise the potency of caffeine as a stimulant or the degree to which it can produce physical and mental dependence particularly in addictive or dependent personalities.”
Many of us begin our day with a cup of coffee, which increases alertness. It is physiologically and psychologically addictive.
Salduker adds that with the advent of energy drinks people now have access to huge doses of caffeine in one go.
Withdrawal symptoms include headaches, irritability, inability to concentrate, drowsiness, insomnia, and pain in the stomach, upper body, and joints.
It can also cause confusion, seizures and psychosis.
He says patients with caffeine intoxication and withdrawal present in the same way as other stimulants such as cocaine and ecstasy.
An article in Forbes suggested that caffeine decreases emotional intelligence. The perception that one is more alert is what fools people into thinking they will function better. However, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that large doses of caffeine raise blood pressure, stimulate the heart, and produce rapid shallow breathing, which deprives the brain of the oxygen needed to think calmly and rationally.
Local dietitian Keri Strachan says habitual drinkers will be less aware of the symptoms of caffeine consumption than those who drink it less often.
“A habitual caffeine drinker is someone who has a caffeine-containing drink at a set time, not necessarily referring to how many times they have a drink. For example, if someone typically has a caffeine drink mid-morning, missing that one drink may lead to withdrawal symptoms, such as headache and cravings.”
It’s important to know which products contain caffeine as well as to be able to identify it on labels.
Common sources of caffeine are coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks, and (to a lesser extent) chocolate derived from cocoa beans.
Less commonly used sources of caffeine include the yerba mate, guarana and ilex guayusa plants, which are sometimes used in the preparation of teas and energy drinks. Two alternative names for caffeine, mateine and guaranine, are derived from the names of these plants.
Some teas contain more caffeine than coffee by dry weight. A typical serving, however, contains less, since tea is normally brewed much weaker.
Tea contains small amounts of theobromine and slightly higher levels of theophylline than coffee.
Salduker warns against high caffeine diets.
“Many doctors put patients on weight loss regimens especially concocted to contain high doses of caffeine in addition to thyroid hormone and pseudoephedrine – all in an alleged attempt to speed up metabolism and lose weight. This is very dangerous and should be avoided.”
Said to bolster hair growth, caffeine can also be found in hair loss shampoo and an increasing number of beauty products.
Topical use is uncharted territory.
The skin care industry is said to be testing a multitude of topical caffeine compounds as a means of eliminating the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, and creating a rejuvenated, youthful complexion, but caffeine-infused products are already available on the market.
Some manufacturers have developed caffeine lotion and face creams to moisturise the skin making it supple but firm.
Caffeine is thus becoming known as a type of antioxidant.
Other products contain green tea, which is also said to contain trace amounts of caffeine when applied topically.
These items have yielded some positive results, but overall, topical caffeine skin care products have yet to be fully supported by the medical community.
The list of potential benefits of caffeine is interesting.
In humans, caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant, temporarily warding off drowsiness and restoring alertness.
However, the lesser mentioned flip side is that in excess it can cause tremors and muscle twitches.
Other possible benefits – some might say pure speculation – include improved immune function from caffeine’s anti-inflammatory effects and help with allergic reactions due to caffeine’s ability to reduce concentrations of histamines. Some people’s asthma also appears to benefit from caffeine.
These research findings are intriguing, but are yet to be proven.
Some say it sobers them up.
Limited evidence suggests caffeine may also reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes and dementia.
Yet, prudent advice for pregnant women has always been to limit their consumption of caffeine.
Many believe it inhibits sleep.
However, there are more pressing and controversial claims such as links to osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
While the verdict is still out, with more speculation than research available – one thing is certain, we shouldn’t be drinking three litres of the stuff in one day. - The Mercury