Like many of you, I enjoy coffee in the morning to help me wake up. Sometimes in the early afternoon I’ll have a second cup to perk up my fading energy. And, finally, again like many of you, another swallow or two to ward off the lethargic feeling after a heavy evening meal.
Owing to the effects these rituals have on us, you probably realize caffeine is a stimulant, but you may not generally classify it with cocaine, Dexedrine and methamphetamine. But medical science does. Needless to say, caffeine isn’t nearly as powerful as these sister drugs, but its physical and psychological effects are very similar.
In our brains, caffeine acts to block the neurotransmitters that tell us when we’re tired. This creates a feeling of renewed energy and alertness. In fact, it’s more than just a “feeling” – emotions can be deceiving – because there’s considerable research to indicate that the drug actually does improve vigilance and reaction time. Large doses of caffeine also seem to improve the endurance of athletes.
Caffeine, like its sister drugs, is addictive, which many of us realize when we miss the cup we always consume at a particular time of day. (In my particular case, I notice the hook whenever I’m near an espresso bar or a latté of almost any flavor.) It’s also a diuretic and can cause dehydration. Worse of all, in rare cases of a severe overdose, it can kill you, typically by stopping your heart. This fact received considerable publicity a few years ago when some misguided fellows at a frat party drank several cans of Red Bull accompanied by shots of vodka.
Of course, we find caffeine in many products besides coffee. It’s been in soft drinks, like Coke and Pepsi, ever since the late 1800s. However, in recent years, caffeine products have become so numerous it’s difficult to keep track of them. Jolt Cola was introduced in 1985. Among ordinary soft drinks, Mountain Dew claimed the highest caffeine content until Pepsi Max came along. Red Bull was launched in 1997, Stay Alert gum in 2003, 5-Hour Energy in the last few years and the heavy-duty Rockstar with 329 milligrams of caffeine in 16 fluid ounces. The drug has also found its way into a number of over-the-counter medications; for instance, nasal sprays, wake-up capsules like NoDoz and most diet pills. I’ve recently heard about some kind on melt-on-your-tongue caffeine strips.
Though the sale of all these products continues to usurp a larger and larger share of the caffeine market, the drug’s most popular form of ingestion is still coffee. (Oh, to have sunk a few thousand into Starbucks when it initially appeared on the Exchange in 1992.) Today, Americans consume more than 15 million pounds of caffeine every year. That’s enough to fill a freight train two miles long. No doubt about it, this is the drug that moves America.
These are just a few random thoughts you might consider the next time that heady aroma wafts about your nose and that first bitter taste washes over your tongue.