Caffeine is a drug that is heavily used in various forms all over the world. An article by Jennifer Temple from the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at the University at Buffalo, shows the results of studies on the effects of caffeine in children.1)Temple JL. Caffeine use in children: what we know, what we have left to learn, and why we should worry. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2009;33(6):793-806. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.01.001
Let’s see what Dr. Jennifer and other scientists say about caffeine consumption. Caffeine is a substance that acts on our brain, legally permitted, easy to obtain, and socially acceptable to consume. Previously, it was relatively restricted to adults, but caffeinated beverages nowadays are being regularly consumed by children. In addition, some drinks that contain caffeine are marketed specifically for children starting with the tender age of 4 years.
Caffeine is classified as a stimulant drug typically used for its ability to activate the central nervous system. Although generally recognized as safe by the US Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, excessive caffeine use can result in serious health risks, and in rare cases can lead to death.
The use of caffeine in children has not been sufficiently studied so far. Children and teenagers are the fastest growing population of caffeine users, with an increase of 70% in the last 30 years. Along with this goes the development of new caffeine-containing drinks, called energy drinks, which contain levels of caffeine ranging from 50mg, equivalent to a can of soda to 500mg, the equivalent of five cups of coffee, and often very high levels of sugar.
Energy drink sales have grown by over 50% since 2005, and they are unfortunately the fastest growing segment of the beverage industry. Energy drinks are marketed specifically to young adults and children, with ads showing high-risk activities, extreme sports like rock climbing or paragliding, using catchy slogans, which is a commercial wickedness to do so.
Caffeine is found in coffee, black tea, chocolate, mate tea, green tea and guarana. It is naturally produced in the grains and leaves of the plants used to make these products. Caffeine is also used as an additive in other products such as soft drinks, energy drinks and pain relievers. Caffeine levels can vary greatly in these products, depending on the concentration and preparation, as in the case of tea and coffee, or the amount added as in the case of soft drinks and energy drinks.
Even though caffeine consumption is banalized by many, there are according to Dr. Jennifer two things that should be considered about caffeine consumption by children and teens. First, there is a wide range of caffeine use among teenagers, with some consuming considerably more than average, which makes them also vulnerable of developing other types of high-risk behavior.
Second, due to the paucity of research on caffeine use in adolescents, we do not know the “safe” level of caffeine use in this population. Consumption of caffeinated beverages in general and consumption of soft drinks in particular is of concern because of their potentially negative health effects, as well as their established relationship with sleep disturbance, obesity and tooth decay. In addition to traditional caffeine-containing products like coffee, tea and soda, people can now get their caffeine fix from a variety of nontraditional sources. It appears that caffeinated consumables are being marketed to younger populations.
In addition to its well-known effects on sleep disturbances and restlessness, caffeine exerts some more behavioral effects. Its use produces tolerance and dependence, that is, tolerance means the need to use larger doses to obtain the same stimulating effect, and dependence is addiction.
Acute caffeine use has dose-dependent effects on mood, attention span and physiology. For example, moderate doses of caffeine ranging from 200 to 300mg often produce the perception of heightened feelings of well-being, improved concentration and increased arousal and energy, but high doses above 400 mg lead to feelings of anxiety, nausea, agitation, headache, fatigue and nervousness. Worse though, acute administration of a moderate dose of caffeine of 200 to 300 mg, already decreases heart rate and increases blood pressure. In children and adolescents, caffeine consumption may be driven by peer pressure or a desire for increased sports performance.
Irregularly high levels of caffeine consumption, like above 400 to 450 mg per day increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. High levels of caffeine use are also associated with calcium excretion and bone loss, which may contribute to osteoporosis.
Dr. Jennifer continues to point out, that although data differ between studies, most agree that high levels of caffeine consumption in women trying to become pregnant may be associated with lower rates of conception, and higher rates of miscarriage. As with other peer-reviewed articles, the consensus is that some high levels of caffeine consumption can have adverse effects on fertility, and the recommendation is that women trying to get pregnant should limit caffeine to less than 300 milligrams per day, and it’s even better not to use it at all.
In children, the main vehicle for caffeine is soft drinks, which also contain a lot of sugar. This facilitates the development of caffeine dependence, and perhaps also contributes to an increased preference for foods and beverages containing added sugar. Sugar activates reward pathways similar to drugs like cocaine, amphetamine and nicotine.
Childhood and adolescence are periods of rapid growth and the final stage of brain development. In order to maximize growth and development, adequate sleep and nutrition are essential. Caffeine use disrupts sleep patterns, and excessive soda consumption is associated with a poor diet, excess weight, and tooth decay. If caffeine increases preferences for sweet foods and beverages, it can contribute to excess energy intake, and increase the risk of overweight and obesity in adulthood. Children and teens can be particularly vulnerable to caffeine, as their brains are still undergoing significant development, in specific areas of the brain involved in executive function, impulsivity control and planning.
Consumption of energy drinks can lead to several negative consequences, especially in children and adolescents, because of their high caffeine content, explains Dr. Jennifer. First, she says, children and adolescents may be more susceptible to caffeine intoxication, which results in a number of physiological and psychological effects, and can in some cases lead to death.
Second, in addition to the harmful effects of energy drinks, they are often combined with alcohol as a way to increase the symptoms of euphoria. This can lead to increased alcohol intake and consequently an increase in harmful alcohol-related symptoms.
Third, excessive consumption of energy drinks has been associated with involvement in various high-risk behaviors, including smoking, drinking, illicit drug use, risky sexual behavior and fighting.
I want to end by leaving a text by a last century writer, who already gave us this advice over 100 years ago:
Tea and coffee do not nourish the system. The relief obtained from them is sudden, before the stomach has time to digest them. This shows that what the users of these stimulants call strength is only received by exciting the nerves of the stomach, which convey the irritation to the brain, and this in turn is aroused to impart increased action to the heart and short-lived energy to the entire system. All this is false strength that we are the worse for having. They do not give a particle of natural strength.2)Ellen White. Temperance, p. 75. Pacific Press
So the best attitude to caffeine is to avoid its use in whatever forms it is present in beverages and foods. It preserves your health, and your brain as well. Cutting caffeine out of your life is worth it!
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Dr. Cesar Vasconcellos de Souza is working as a psychiatrist and international speaker. He is author of 3 books, columnist of the health magazine “Vida e Saúde” for 25 years, and has a regular program on the “Novo Tempo” TV channel.