photo courtesy of Parker Briggs
The True Cost of Caffeine
An interview with expert Melisa Suarez
January 19, 2021
For teenagers, caffeine is a familiar drug. Students use it to pull all-nighters and to stay awake for morning classes. But few teenagers understand the true effects of consuming caffeine.
Melisa Suarez, Spanish teacher in the Upper School for Boys, is an expert in the field of biology with a major in biochemistry from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, Venezuela. She explained the science of what actually happens when a teenager knocks back a Red Bull.
“What does the most harm is the combination of caffeine and sugar,” said Suarez. “The majority of caffeinated drinks that have a high caffeine content also happen to have a high content of sugar.
“One standard 250ml can of Red Bull contains 80mg of caffeine— less than 1 cup of coffee, but with 27g of sugar. A 500ml can of Monster has 169mg of caffeine— the same as three cups of coffee, but with 57g of sugar. The caffeine in a 330ml can of Coca-Cola is less than in a single cup of coffee, but is paired with 39g of sugar.
“If energy drinks only had caffeine, it would be better; but it is the combination of caffeine and sugar that does the most damage. On account of the stimulation it gives you, it is truly a bomb to the nervous system. Caffeine alone wakes you up, but is not as hyper-stimulating to the nervous system.
“Consuming pure caffeine like coffee, without any sugar, also does not have as bad of consequences. The best option for consuming it is having only caffeine and minimal sugar. Low levels of caffeine are also better. Green tea, for example, has caffeine, but only in minimal quantities.”
Even though students often consume caffeine to temporarily boost their cognitive performance, Suarez says this practice is misguided. “When you drink lots of caffeine, you become agitated and very active, but have a decreased ability to concentrate,” she said.
“You don’t have mental clarity. You have lots of energy, but cannot concentrate on a specific idea. You think you are being productive, but you are being cheated by your misperception of caffeine’s effects. So, if you already have any problems with keeping attention, this type of drink is terrible for you.
“After drinking excess caffeine you cannot concentrate; you cannot make coherent decisions; you cannot remember things. In the short term, of course there are also benefits: you are awake; you are active.
“If a person suffers from headaches or migraines, a little caffeine can help because it constricts the blood vessels. That is a fact. But if someone has too much caffeine, it can affect the nervous system. It affects the blood circulation system of all of the cerebral vessels and can have effects like a ‘mini stroke’.”
For teenagers, the long term consequences are most concerning. “The most important thing to understand,” said Suarez, “is that consuming caffeine as an adult over 25 years of age is not the same as consuming caffeine as an adolescent, between 8 and 24 years old.
“If an adult over 25 years drinks a Monster, it does damage but nowhere on the scale it would for a teenager, because the brain is in a stage of development and plasticity. The brain of an adolescent is not fully formed, and to have the kind of stimulation you get from the combination of caffeine and sugar is dreadfully explosive.
“Because the brain is still in stages of development, the process of making neural connections has not yet been completed. Excess stimulation from caffeine and sugar is unhealthy for this process of maturation of the brain.
“The problems caused by caffeine come from one: excess, and two: repetition,” said Suarez. “You could drink a whole liter of black coffee today, and nothing is going to happen if you don’t have any more until the following year. But if every day you introduce the same quantity of caffeine into your body, your nervous system is going to begin to require it to be able to stay awake.
“In the long term, you develop dependence and addiction. You cannot remember events; you consume too much caffeine and you are unable to mentally catalog what things you did. In the long term, your dependence requires you to take caffeine to be able to stay alert. In the long term, the neural connections in your brain are not as good.
“When you go to bed, you will not sleep well. You may fall asleep and think that you are resting, but you are still under the effects of caffeine. Caffeine in the body reduces the amount of deep sleep, REM, which is vital for neurons in this stage of development. Teenagers need more hours of deep sleep than adults, because when you sleep your brain develops new connections between neurons.
“This is when the brain consolidates and solidifies information, and is in the process of changing into the brain of an adult. If you don’t receive deep sleep, REM, for long hours as an adolescent, this interrupts cerebral development. So it really does damage over the long run. Teengers who consume energy drinks or caffeine in excess are inhibiting the long-term development of their brains.
“When you are a child, consuming caffeine does harm, but your brain is not in the same process of development as when you are a teenager. The time of the most drastic, radical development in your life, is adolescence. Whatever happens to your brain during this stage of adolescence will stay there for the rest of your life.
“For a child, caffeine will create dependence but not have the same consequences in the long term. But as a teenager, by consuming caffeine you will inhibit the development of your brain and suffer permanent consequences.
“By consuming caffeine as a teenager, you create dependence in your brain. When you become an adult, you will have lost the capability to concentrate without the use of caffeine. Without caffeine, you will naturally be in a state of lethargy. Without caffeine, you will not be able to stay alert and focused. Without caffeine, you won’t be able to take in new information. Your brain will not have the capability to do these things.
“You drink more coffee to stay alert, and then you end up continuing to feed the loop. It is very difficult to break that sort of pattern. People who are addicted and have consumed caffeine since adolescence, who are 30 or 40 years old and go without coffee, will have a higher risk of getting in a car crash, will struggle to perform at their jobs, and will have a hard time remembering things, all because their brain is working much slower.
“If you develop dependency as an adult and don’t get enough caffeine, you may get a headache. But if you develop dependency during adolescence and go without caffeine, you may not be able to understand the words someone is saying.”
This piece was originally published in Inkwell’s Health Issue.