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Starting the day with caffeine? You need to know this

The shaky hands, the anxiety, that “buzz” you get in your bones—caffeine has some curious side effects.

Thought of by many as one of the last few legal “drugs” (along with nicotine and alcohol), caffeine is a staple of academic and professional life, getting you through that final exam or that all-nighter before work.

Caffeine has long straddled the line between cultural meme and societal ill. Yet some nutritionists claim caffeine consumption has gotten out of control, even as dozens of Facebook groups make fun of the so-called “caffeine addiction.”

In past years, caffeine was found largely in coffee and sodas. Today, it’s added to candy and novelty items that appeal to kids. This recent influx of caffeinated products has raised serious questions about caffeine’s health effects, a topic that consumers and health experts have debated for years.

“If you look at caffeine without all the positive social stigmas you will realize that it is just another legalized drug,” said Nikita Alexandrov, an Auburn University sophomore who uses Facebook to educate others on what he sees as a caffeine epidemic.

“Caffeine has the same characteristic as other dangerous drugs: It is psychoactive; you build up a tolerance requiring more to achieve the same effect; it has negative withdrawal effects once you stop consuming it; and it is very possible to overdose at larger doses.”

“SumSeeds”—caffeinated sunflower seeds—made their debut in 2007 and became an instant hit. Treats like caffeine mints and “Jolt” caffeinated candy that promise to keep consumers awake—with an added minty touch—are popular among kids and high school students.

Caffeine has even infiltrated the cosmetics market, with companies selling “caffeinated lotion,” claiming that the that face cream makes users look younger and—dare we say it? —more alert.

This past January, a Swedish woman checked herself into a rehabilitation clinic to deal with her addition to Coke--not the powder, the fizzy kind that comes in a plastic bottle.

Jonathan Ulaszek became passionately interested in spreading the anti-caffeine message in 2004, the year he graduated from Beloit College. Like many students his age, Ulaszek was fond of new of caffeinated products like RC Cola’s RC Edge, which boasted a higher caffeine content.

After reading “The Great American Detox Diet” by Alex Jamieson, Ulaszek said, his perspective on caffeine changed.

“I find myself surrounded by people that are hooked on coffee or soda,” said Ulaszek. “I watch people all day stay slaves to coffee and soda. If they don’t have it, they can’t seem to function.”

Many experts agree.

“It’s the type of drug that shouldn’t be taken lightly,” said Bill Aronson, a representative with the Caffeine Awareness Association, a group claiming that caffeine has long-term adverse health effects, such as high blood pressure and anxiety disorders. “Caffeine is the type of drug abused frequently because it’s so accessible.”

Particularly popular among college students, caffeine has become an increasingly central part of many young people’s lives, said Aronson, adding to the risk of chronic health problems as a result. He believes that young people use diet sodas and coffees for a variety of irresponsible activities, like extreme late-night study sessions and weight loss.

“The more that you take it, the more that you want to take it,” said Aronson. He said conditions such as depression, mood swings and irregular heartbeat can emerge after prolonged consumption.

But many medical experts believe this heightened awareness of caffeine consumption is unwarranted.

“There are no harmful health consequences for using caffeine over a long period of time,” said Dr. Herbert Muncie, a clinician and professor of medicine at Louisiana State University who has written extensively on the issue of caffeine consumption over the last 10 years. “There are some short term affects—people can get a little nervous, a little jittery. Probably there are some withdrawal symptoms, although studies find it hard to prove.”

He said many studies that evaluate the effects of caffeine consumption are flawed because they fail to take into account the tolerance the body builds over time to caffeinated products.

By depriving regular caffeine consumers of their daily fix for a week, as many caffeine-related studies do, and then loading their system with caffeine later, they are guaranteeing side effects, such as an elevated heart rate, that are temporary and not necessarily bad, said Muncie.

“That’s just called tolerance,” he said. “If you use it every day you get used to it.”

This tolerance, however, could signify larger health problems, said Aronson. His anti-caffeine group emphasizes what he referred to as “caffeine abstinence”—quitting the substance entirely, either cold turkey or through a gradual decrease in consumption.

“Just like someone who’s an alcoholic—someone who doesn’t have a drink for 15 years has a drink and he can relapse,” said Aronson, who conceded that quitting caffeine entirely “can be difficult in social situations.”

Aronson encourages caffeine users to quit, despite the withdrawal symptoms they might experience. He said that a morning craving coffee or tea isn’t the result of exhaustion, so much as it’s related to the body’s overnight caffeine deprivation. As with other addictions, once the habit runs out of users’ systems, they should be able to function without their fix.

These withdrawal symptoms are hard to identify—and even harder to prove they exist in clinical studies, said Muncie. He believes that caffeine addiction is, in part, a myth.

“For me, for something to be truly addictive, you have to have adverse health consequences, withdrawal—which there may be—and neurological changes in the brain,” said Muncie. “We don’t normally see people engage in criminal activity to get caffeine.”

E-mail: att2113@columbia.edu