Fighting the Sandman

When Muir senior Roshani Patel wakes up every morning, she makes herself a cup of coffee before heading to campus. Patel, like millions of other people, has grown accustomed to daily caffeine consumption. Coffee, soda and caffeine pills have become increasingly popular among students, helping them to stay alert.

According to the International Food Information Council, caffeine, which is part of a group of compounds known as methylxanthines, is a substance that is found in the leaves, seeds and fruits of at least 63 plant species throughout the world. Common sources of caffeine include coffee, cocoa beans, kola nuts and tea leaves. Depending on the amount consumed, caffeine can act as a mild stimulant to the central nervous system.

According to the American Medical Association, over 80 percent of adults in the United States consume some form of caffeine. The AMA study also states that each day, the average adult ingests approximately 280 milligrams of caffeine, the amount found in about two large cups of coffee.

This “”coffee craze”” is common among people of all ages, and Patel is no exception.

“”On average, I drink about five to six cups of coffee per day,”” Patel said. “”The caffeine helps me to wake up in the morning, and allows me to function throughout the day without getting tired.””

While overall consumption of caffeinated beverages has increased over the years, studies have shown that the drug, if taken in small amounts, is not harmful.

Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine confirmed that relatively small doses of caffeine might have positive effects.

“”People who take in small amounts of caffeine say that they feel more awake and alert,”” Griffiths said. “”In higher doses, however, caffeine can produce negative effects, such as anxiety and nervousness.””

So, how much caffeine is too much?

The Food and Drug Administration suggests that people who consume large amounts of coffee (more than five cups a day) on a regular basis often find that their bodies have adapted to the constant amount of caffeine, thereby increasing their tolerance to the substance. An increase in caffeine intake then becomes necessary in order to create a stimulating effect.

Those who are dependent on the consumption of a certain amount of caffeine, and who go without the substance for some time, may suffer from withdrawal symptoms such as fatigue and headaches. The physical and psychological dependence on the drug can also lead to irritability.

Griffiths warns that the substance can be addictive and can lead to mild side effects. He refers to caffeine as the world’s most widely used “”mind-altering drug.””

Patel has experienced some of the side effects of caffeine consumption.

“”I have been drinking coffee since I was 14 years old, and over the years I have increased the amount of caffeine that I am able to consume,”” she said. “”I am so used to having a certain amount of caffeine each day that if I go without it, even for a few hours, I get headaches.””

Regular caffeine consumers often overlook all of these factors. The IFIC states that approximately 110 million Americans drink coffee on a daily basis. A large percentage of this figure includes those who are between the ages of 18 and 24. Although caffeinated drinks are popular among people of all ages, college students have been shown to rely on stimulants such as caffeine pills in order to increase their alertness.

One such pill is Vivarin, a FDA-approved, over-the-counter product.

Many college students rely on this pill to restore their mental alertness. Several studies have determined that students tend to use caffeine pills to stay up late, especially during midterms and final exams. Students have also been known to use these stimulants to increase their attentiveness during the day.

Patel, a self-proclaimed coffee addict, often relies on caffeine pills such as Vivarin to increase her energy.

“”Sometimes the caffeine in coffee and soda does not keep me up,”” Patel said. “”Caffeine pills such as Vivarin often succeed in making me more alert, even when drinking caffeinated beverages doesn’t.””

College students contribute a large portion of sales for companies such as Vivarin. Use among students is so widespread that Vivarin claims that over 40 percent of college students have tried a caffeine pill at least once in their lifetime. Vivarin, as well as similar drugs such as No Doz, caters most of its marketing plans toward young adults, since the market for the pills includes mostly college-age people.

Like Patel, Revelle junior Tanmai Saxena has used the Vivarin pill several times in order to increase his alertness.

“”The amount of caffeine in a Vivarin pill is equivalent to about two cups of coffee,”” Saxena said. “”I have taken Vivarin several times in the past in order to maximize my efficiency in terms of being able to stay up late to study.””

In 1997, The Center for Science in the Public Interest successfully urged the FDA to encourage manufacturers of soft drinks, as well as other products containing caffeine, to properly label their products. The CSPI claimed that consumers have a right to know the amount of caffeine in the products they purchase.

Recently, a number of studies on the potential dangers of increased caffeine use have been conducted. In 1999, Consumer Reports on Health conducted a study of these dangers.

The study found that an unusual dose of caffeine can raise blood pressure levels temporarily, and if occurring during stressful periods, can be dangerous to people with hypertension. The study also concluded that those who experience irregular heartbeats should eliminate caffeine from their diets. Also, those who suffer from anxiety problems should avoid caffeine use since large doses of the substance can trigger panic attacks. Finally, it was concluded that insomnia and emotional distress were effects of long-term use of the drug.

Despite the apparent side effects of excess caffeine consumption, most students feel that the substance increases alertness and decreases drowsiness. Many claim that the increase in energy they experience is worth the few minor consequences of caffeine use.

Patel admits to her dependency on caffeine, but insists that if it were not for her daily cups of coffee, she would be unable to function with the same amount of energy.

“”Am I addicted? Of course,”” Patel said. “”But old habits are hard to break.””