Caffeine has become the “brain fuel” of our fast-paced culture, helping us keep up with the frenetic pace of modern life. However, the use of this central nervous system stimulant isn’t limited to adults. Teenagers are consuming caffeine in sodas, energy drinks, and coffee beverages.
Caffeine can also be found in chocolate, coffee-flavored foods, over-the-counter medications and caffeine pills. As young people race from school to activities to part-time jobs, many are relying on caffeine to keep them alert and focused.
While a little caffeine won’t harm a teen’s health, consistent use has negative consequences. Too much caffeine can prevent teens from getting the sleep and nutrients they need for healthy physical development. And although small amounts of caffeine can sharpen mental focus, too much of this drug can have the opposite effect, making you jittery and scattered.
Health Concerns of Caffeine Consumption
When taken in moderate amounts, caffeine is relatively safe. A little caffeine can help you concentrate, sharpen your thoughts, and help you stay energized at work or school. According to the Mayo Clinic, most adults can safely consume 200 to 300 mg of caffeine per day, or about the equivalent of two to four cups of coffee. But heavy caffeine use, or the consumption of 500 to 600 mg of the drug per day, can have side effects such as:
- Adolescent sleep disorders
- Upset stomach
- Rapid heart rate
For teenagers, the recommended daily limits may be even lower. Your body mass and your history of exposure to caffeine can affect your sensitivity to this drug, which means that smaller teens who aren’t used to stimulants may have even stronger reactions. Children and teenagers with heart problems or anxiety disorders are even more susceptible to the health effects of caffeine.
According to New York University’s Lagone Medical Center, drinking too many caffeinated beverages may have a negative impact on a teen’s nutritional status. If teens consume caffeinated sodas or coffee drinks instead of nutritious beverages like juice or milk, they’re missing out on essential vitamins and minerals. In the teenage years, when physical development is at its peak, consuming too much caffeine could deprive the body of valuable nutrients.
Caffeine and Sleep
For a developing teenager’s brain, sleep is just as important as food or water. Teenagers need more sleep than adults, according to the National Sleep Foundation — an average of 8.5 to 9.25 hours per night.
A lack of sleep in adolescents can cause:
- Poor performance at school or work
- Difficulty focusing on specific tasks
- Mood disturbances
- An increased risk of motor vehicle accidents
- Acne and other skin problems
- Weight gain
In today’s competitive, high-tech world, many teens aren’t getting enough sleep, cautions the journal Pediatrics. Consuming too much caffeine, especially late in the day, has led to sleep disturbances in many teenagers. In a study of middle school and high school students, the journal found that students who stayed up late drinking caffeinated beverages and studying or using the computer had problems with concentration at school during the day. Out of the students who participated in the study, 27.5 percent consumed less than 100 mg of caffeine per day, while 11 percent consumed enough caffeine to fuel four or more espressos.
Energy drinks, in particular, are a risk for teens. With colorful packaging and catchy names like Rock Star, Wired and Fixx, caffeinated energy drinks are marketed to teens and young adults. Teens can easily purchase these drinks at convenience stores, supermarkets and other outlets, but they may not be aware of exactly how much caffeine these beverages contain or how that caffeine will affect their systems.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal points out that a canned energy drink may contain up to 140 mg of caffeine for every 250 ml. Because many teenagers drink these beverages after school, and caffeine can stay in the system for up to 14 hours, two or three energy drinks could keep a teen wired all night.
Is It Possible to Overdose on Caffeine?
If you plan to use caffeine to stay up all night studying for a big exam or just chatting online with friends, think carefully about how much of this drug you’re using. Although caffeine is a legal substance that is generally considered safe, it can be dangerous when it’s consumed in large doses. How do you know if you’ve had too much caffeine? According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, signs of an overdose include:
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Muscle tremors
- Increased urination
If you have the symptoms of a caffeine overdose, contact emergency services or your local or national poison control center. A caffeine overdose usually isn’t fatal, but it can cause serious health consequences, especially for someone with a heart problem.
Can I Get Addicted to Caffeine?
A lot of adults and teenagers consume coffee, tea or other caffeinated products without realizing that they’re chemically dependent on this substance. But if you consume a lot of caffeine on a regular basis, you may develop these symptoms of dependence or addiction:
- A need to consume larger amounts of caffeine to get the same buzz
- Withdrawal symptoms (e.g., headaches, agitation, irritability and fatigue) if you stop using caffeine or cut back too quickly
- The continued use of caffeine in spite of its negative effects on your health, your activities or your academic performance
- Repeated failures to stop using caffeine, even though you really want to eliminate it from your diet
If you drink caffeine every day just to stay awake, you may be chemically dependent on this substance. A medical evaluation can help you determine whether you have underlying physical or psychological concerns that are interfering with your sleep —such as a sleep disorder or depression — or whether you’re consuming too much caffeine.
What About Caffeine and Alcohol?
Caffeine dependence can go hand in hand with other addictions. Caffeine can enhance the effects of alcohol by suppressing its sedative effects, which means you can maintain the pleasurable effects of drinking for longer periods. Scientific American notes that both alcohol and caffeine affect the brain’s production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that causes feelings of happiness and well-being. Because caffeine can temporarily mask the effects of alcohol, consuming both substances at the same time can increase the risk of severe intoxication or alcohol poisoning. For teenage drinkers who are inexperienced with alcohol, this combination can be deadly.
In 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warnings to several manufacturers of caffeinated alcohol beverages (CABs) informing them that the mixture of these substances is unsafe. Like caffeinated energy drinks, CABs are marketed to a youthful demographic and often appeal to young people who are attracted to an edgy, fast-paced lifestyle.
For most teens, caffeine alone isn’t enough to harm their health or undermine their plans for the future. Caffeine may be only one of the substances that a troubled teenager uses to manage a life that seems out of control. If you care about a teen who’s going through a tough time, contact the treatment specialists at Newport Academy. We are experts in helping young people get through this challenging period, so they can go on to lead rewarding, healthy lives.
Image courtesy of Alex Jones via Unsplash.