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Columbia Missourian

Caffeine beneficial for some students, but excess consumption is problematic

By Naif Bartlett
December 3, 2012 | 8:20 p.m. CST
MU student Kellie Stanfield, right, has coffee with her friend Meredith Turk at Panera Bread in downtown Columbia on Friday. Stanfield has Hashimoto's thyroiditis, which causes her to be fatigued. She was diagnosed when she was in high school. She said she usually has 4 cups of coffee per day to stay awake.

COLUMBIA — Jordan Laguna starts her morning the same way every day.

She more or less wakes up, gets dressed and heads straight for the coffeemaker. Before taking on her morning classes at Stephens College, she needs at least two cups of coffee. And if she doesn't get them? You don't want to know.

Caffeine Survey

In addition to using Facebook and Twitter, Missourian reporters distributed the survey at student unions, cafeterias and other places students can be found in large numbers on Columbia's three campuses.

You can find the survey questions here.

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"Don't mess with my cup of coffee," she said.

When her day doesn't begin as desired, Laguna doodles coffee cups instead of taking notes in class. She can't concentrate, her head sometimes hurts, and nothing is accomplished.

"Mentally, I'm just not there," she said. 

That's only the beginning. If she goes without coffee for more than a day, she soon has a splitting headache, feels cranky and has zero attention span.

Laguna's experience is familiar to many who have tried to lay off caffeine.

The American Medical Association, while noting that there is no nutritional need for caffeine, says that caffeine used in moderation usually has no negative side effects. Several studies have shown that a moderate amount of caffeine can actually have positive effects on health, including a decreased risk of skin cancer and a chance to live longer.  

But too much caffeine can lead to increased heart rate, muscle tremors, depression and other health issues, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Officials at the Mayo Clinic say that 200 to 300 milligrams of caffeine (about two to four normal cups of coffee) per day is generally healthy. But if you're drinking a venti-sized coffee from Starbucks, you're already more than 100 milligrams over that healthy limit. Even a "short" cup of Starbucks coffee, the smallest size, contains 175 milligrams of caffeine.

Energy drinks — such as Monster Energy and 5-Hour ENERGY shots — are possibly the most dangerous caffeine drinks. Researchers said in a Johns Hopkins University study that energy drink companies should be required to disclose how much caffeine their products contain. A 2007 survey of 496 college students revealed that 19 percent had experienced heart palpitations after drinking energy drinks.

Energy drinks have also caused deaths in some cases. Monster Energy drinks might have had a role in five deaths, and FDA officials said on Nov. 15 that it was investigating 13 death reports and 33 hospitalizations possibly linked to 5-Hour Energy shots, according to a USA Today article.

So, what's all this caffeine doing to the student body?

As the late nights associated with end-of-semester exams loom, the Missourian surveyed 200 students from MU, Columbia College and Stephens College about their consumption of caffeine — widely accepted as the most commonly used drug in the world — and how it's affecting them.

Of the 200 respondents:

Students acknowledged health problems — including headaches, upset stomachs and trouble staying awake or falling asleep — and many had tried in vain to reduce or eliminate caffeine from their diets.

"The few times I tried to unhook myself from caffeine, I found that I had extreme headaches," one respondent said.

Sarah Edwards, a student at Columbia College, said she has sharp pains in her head if she hasn't had caffeine by early afternoon.

It's everywhere

Laguna and her fellow caffeine drinkers don't have any trouble getting their fix because caffeine is easily accessible at Stephens, Columbia College and MU. Stephens has a coffee shop and cafeteria where students can get a caffeine charge. Columbia College is similarly equipped.

MU students have even more options. With a selection including 5-Hour Energy shots, Starbucks Doubleshots and $1.54 cups of hot coffee, Mizzou Market's three locations offer a wide variety of caffeinated drinks. The cafe Infusion is just one of several places in the MU Student Center that sell coffee and other caffeinated beverages. In addition to vending machines all over campus, there are 20 places — including dining halls, retail outlets and coffee shops — where MU students can buy and drink caffeinated beverages. Starbucks has two locations on campus.

Christy Hutton, the programming and communications coordinator at the MU Counseling Center, talks to students about their caffeine consumption when they seek help for sleep troubles or anxiety.

And there's no question college students are an anxious bunch. Like Alan Reifman, a professor of human development and family studies at Texas Tech University, points out in his blog for Psychology Today, college students face leaving home, intense pressure from classes and finals, having to work off the high cost of college and a slow economy upon graduation

A 2010 survey of more than 200,000 college freshman showed that self-ratings of their emotional health were at record lows

Adding heavy caffeine consumption to an already stressful college lifestyle could lead to more problems.

Hutton sees popular culture as contributing to its widespread use.

"U.S. culture glamorizes caffeine consumption," Hutton said. "Starbucks is cool. Soda companies spend billions of dollars enticing buyers."

And as if caffeinated drinks are not enough, a classic snack has also been altered to include caffeine. Frito-Lay is introducing a new version of its popular snack, Cracker Jacks, with caffeine included as a new ingredient. The new snack will be called Cracker Jack'd.

Why they're drinking it

Students indicated taste is one of the main reasons they drink caffeinated beverages, with 76 percent saying they sometimes or frequently drink them for the flavor.

Many respondents also said they drink caffeine to make up for lost sleep. Several even attempted to reduce consumption but still rely on caffeine as a sleep substitute.

"I was completely free of caffeine for two years, but recently started drinking it if I need to pull all-nighters," one respondent said.

Another respondent described extreme drowsiness and an inability to keep up with his homework if he does not drink caffeine.

Hutton said she has heard students call sleep overrated. But students who use caffeine as a substitute for sleep might actually be disrupting their sleeping patterns even further, which could increase their reliance on caffeine.

Lawrence Epstein, of Harvard Medical School, said that caffeine not only blocks adenosine, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep, but can also cause less deep sleep and cause a person to wake up more frequently. The effects of caffeine can last from four to seven hours.

Kim Dude, director of MU's Wellness Resource Center, said that sleep, or lack thereof, is likely related to caffeine use. She maintains that getting proper sleep and not using caffeine is the best thing to do. 

"The most important thing is sleeping the same number of hours every night," Dude said. "It's better not to take naps than to split a full night's rest with a nap."

Sixty-four percent of students reported napping either frequently or sometimes.

The National Sleep Foundation, while acknowledging that people's sleep needs are different, advises everybody to establish consistent sleeping and waking schedules to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Hutton said when students come to the MU Counseling Center seeking help for sleep challenges or anxiety, they look at frequency, amount and timing of caffeine consumption.

"Often reducing consumption or stopping caffeine in the afternoon and evening can play a significant role in improving the student's overall functioning and sense of well-being," Hutton wrote in an email.

Heavy drinkers and addicts

Poor sleep patterns and increased use of caffeine can lead to addiction.

The majority of the 35 percent of students who consider themselves either heavy caffeine drinkers or addicts drink it daily or at least five times a week.

Those daily drinkers differ on how they define their consumption habits. Nearly 30 percent of those students who drink caffeine daily or at least five times a week do not consider themselves heavy caffeine drinkers or addicts.

While too much caffeine causes serious health implications, 22.9 percent of students who dubbed themselves heavy caffeine drinkers and addicts said they do not think they need to reduce their consumption.

But when they do decide to reduce their consumption, it can be harder than they expect it to be.

Some students who said in the survey that they'd tried to reduce consumption found major difficulties, with some saying the headaches and inability to concentrate were too much to handle. Others simply missed the taste of morning coffee.

Of the 91 students who said they drink caffeine drinks daily or more than five times a week, 46 tried to reduce their consumption. More than half were unsuccessful.

Of the 69 students who consider themselves heavy drinkers of caffeine or addicted to it, 37 tried to reduce their consumption. Twenty-seven of them, or almost 73 percent, were unsuccessful.

The survey also found a significant difference in the success of males and females when reducing consumption — almost 74 percent of male students who tried to reduce consumption said they succeeded, compared to only about 51 percent of female students. 

Reducing caffeine consumption can lead to withdrawal symptoms similar to those experienced by people addicted to drugs like nicotine. In 2004, Johns Hopkins Medicine recognized caffeine withdrawal as a disorder. The Johns Hopkins study identified five common symptoms: headaches, drowsiness, irritable mood, difficulty concentrating and flu-like symptoms, including nausea and muscle stiffness.

Last year, "caffeine withdrawal syndrome" was recommended for entry into the Fifth Edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Dude advises against going "cold turkey" when reducing caffeine intake, but says, instead, to gradually wean off of it.

Warning, though: Even a tall decaffeinated Starbucks coffee contains 21 milligrams of caffeine.

Major stress

Dude says that students with more competitive and stressful majors are more likely to stay up late or have irregular sleeping patterns. The results showed that some academic majors used caffeine more than others. Students with dual or double majors ranked higher than any single major, with 60.6 percent of students saying they drink daily or more than five times a week.

The majors rank as follows for caffeine consumption daily or more than five times a week:

Hutton noted that the structure of curriculum in each major might be a factor in how much caffeine students of that major drink. Journalism students might have little notice or time to do assignments and might be required to work odd hours, whereas science students are more likely to have structured syllabuses that give students more time to plan, she said.

Hutton also listed accessibility to caffeine on different areas of campuses, tendencies to hold meetings in settings with caffeine and personality traits of students in different majors as factors in how much caffeine students drink.

The bottom line

Overuse of any substance can lead to health problems, Hutton noted in an email. While drinking caffeine in moderation is fine for most people, too much of it can be seriously detrimental to their health. 

"If you are noticing problems, often checking in with caffeine use may be the easiest solution," Hutton said. 

For some of the students who took the survey, including one who indicated she drinks Dr. Pepper at least eight different times a day, breaking the addiction could be difficult.

But given the numerous problems overuse of caffeine can lead to, Dude says it's for the best.

Jared Grafman and Gaby Ramirez contributed to this article.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.