All we need to know about caffeine

Caffeine is the world’s most consumed brain altering drug. News headlines regularly sway from praising its multiple benefits to issuing health warnings. Let’s unpack the truth behind our love affair with caffeine and why it is surrounded by controversy.

Caffeine – an all round energy booster 

Caffeine is a naturally occurring plant substance which acts as a central nervous system stimulant. This has the effect of warding off feelings of drowsiness making us feel alert and focused. It increases our capacity to do sustained mental as well as physical activity. As it raises the activity of the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters in our brain, including dopamine and serotonin, we also feel happier. It takes less than an hour for caffeine to begin affecting us and a moderate dose generally wears off in three to four hours.

Caffeine – natural sources

Caffeine occurs naturally in around 60 different plant species originating from different places around the world, with some of the highest amounts found in those humankind has utilised the most, not surprisingly.

The richest source comes from guarana berries (South America), followed by tea leaves (China), coffee beans (Africa), cola nuts (Africa) and yerba maté leaves (South America). Cacao seeds (South America), from which we get chocolate, also contain caffeine but in significantly lower quantities.

All of these plants have become important commercial and cultural beverages around the world, especially coffee, tea and chocolate, and guarana- and cola-based soft drinks (the cola nut formed the original basis of both Cocoa cola and Pepsi cola).

Caffeine – synthetic sources

Synthetic caffeine is produced from ammonia which is first converted to urea. This is combined with chloroacetic acid to produce methylated theophylline otherwise known as synthetic caffeine. Synthetic caffeine, mostly produced in Chinese pharmaceutical laboratories, is the cheapest and consequently most dominant form of caffeine in energy drinks like Red Bull and cola-based soft drinks.

What are the differences between natural and synthetic caffeine

Unlike synthetic caffeine, natural caffeine does not exist in isolation. It comes with a range of other beneficial phytonutrients including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer compounds, as well as various protective amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Coffee, tea, guarana and cacao are all particularly rich sources of beneficial phytonutrients and their regular consumption is associated with myriad short and long-term health benefits. Synthetic caffeine is stripped of these additional benefits.

New breed of energy drink with natural caffeine.

There is now a way to get the full benefits of natural caffeine in an energy drink. Products such as McNab’s SuperCharge and Tenzing supply naturally occurring caffeine in the form of green coffee, green tea and guarana extracts in order to preserve the full plant benefits, while still delivering a powerful mental and physical energy boost.

Are there any drawbacks to this wonderful pick-me-up?

Well, we sometimes need reminding that caffeine doesn’t eliminate our need for sleep it only temporarily reduces the sensation of being tired. It therefore should not be abused as sleep deprivation has serious health consequences. It’s a little known fact that total sleep deprivation will likely kill us sooner than total food deprivation.

While some people can take caffeinated drinks throughout the day and even right before bedtime without any negative effects, others find they suffer from insomnia as well as increased levels of anxiety, restlessness and heart palpitations from even mild caffeine consumption. Each person’s response to caffeine is unique and consumption should therefore be personally adjusted so that the overall response to this stimulant is positive.

The body will also build up a tolerance to caffeine over time. This means we start to need larger doses to get the same mental and physical boost, which can then lead to problems of overconsumption. It is, however, possible to reset this point by avoiding or substantially reducing caffeine intake for several days. This may lead to a range of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, and probably indicates that you moderate your caffeine consumption.

Regulatory authorities recommend that adults shouldn’t consume more than 400mg of caffeine per day (equivalent to 3-5 cups of cof fee). It is also advised that pregnant and breast-feeding women keep their intakes below 200mg per day. It is advisable for children and adolescents to stay below100mg per day. 

Table of caffeine content

Some of these values will surprise you. While tea is a richer source of caffeine than coffee, more coffee than tea is used to make a hot drink. The amount of caffeine also depends on the way the plant source was harvested, prepared and then brewed. There are also natural variations in caffeine content due different plant varieties and growing conditions. This is why caffeine content values can never be exact for natural plant sources of caffeine. It also means that many of us could be consuming more than the recommended daily amount of 400mg.