October 28, 2021 6 min read

Caffeine 101: how it works, where it's found and its many effects

Many of us can’t imagine starting the day without a cup of coffee. One reason may be that it supplies us with a jolt of caffeine, a mild stimulant to the central nervous system that quickly boosts our alertness and energy levels. Of course, coffee is not the only caffeine-containing beverage. Read on to learn more about sources of caffeine, and a review of the research on this stimulant and health.

Absorption and Metabolism of Caffeine

The chemical name for the bitter white powder known as caffeine is 1,3,7 trimethylxanthine. Caffeine is absorbed within about 45 minutes after consuming, and peaks in the blood anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours. Caffeine in beverages such as coffee, tea, and soda is quickly absorbed in the gut and dissolves in both the body’s water and fat molecules. It is able to cross into the brain. Food or food components, such as fibers, in the gut can delay how quickly caffeine in the blood peaks. Therefore, drinking your morning coffee on an empty stomach might give you a quicker energy boost than if you drank it while eating breakfast.

Caffeine is broken down mainly in the liver. It can remain in the blood anywhere from 1.5 to 9.5 hours, depending on various factors. Smoking speeds up the breakdown of caffeine, whereas pregnancy and oral contraceptives can slow the breakdown. During the third trimester of pregnancy, caffeine can remain in the body for up to 15 hours. 

People often develop a “caffeine tolerance” when taken regularly, which can reduce its stimulant effects unless a higher amount is consumed. When suddenly stopping all caffeine, withdrawal symptoms often follow such as irritability, headache, agitation, depressed mood, and fatigue. The symptoms are strongest within a few days after stopping caffeine, but tend to subside after about one week. Tapering  the amount gradually may help to reduce side effects.

Sources of Caffeine

Caffeine is naturally found in the fruit, leaves, and beans of coffee, cacao, and guarana plants. It is also added to beverages and supplements. There is a risk of drinking excess amounts of caffeinated beverages like soda and energy drinks because they are taken chilled and are easy to digest quickly in large quantities.

  • Coffee. 1 cup or 240ml of brewed coffee contains about 95 mg caffeine. The same amount of instant coffee contains about 60 mg caffeine. Decaffeinated coffee contains about 4 mg of caffeine. Learn more about coffee.
  • Espresso. 1 shot or 44ml contains about 65 mg caffeine.
  • Tea. 1 cup of black tea contains about 47 mg caffeine. Green tea contains about 28 mg. Decaffeinated tea contains 2 mg, and herbal tea contains none. Learn more about tea.
  • Soda. A can of regular or diet dark cola contains about 40 mg caffeine. The same amount of Mountain Dew contains 55 mg caffeine.
  • Chocolate (cacao). 28gm of dark chocolate contains about 24 mg caffeine, whereas milk chocolate contains one-quarter of that amount.
  • Guarana. This is a seed from a South American plant that is processed as an extract in foods, energy drinks, and energy supplements. Guarana seeds contain about four times the amount of caffeine as that found in coffee beans. [4] Some drinks containing extracts of these seeds can contain up to 125 mg caffeine per serving.
  • Energy drinks. 250ml of an energy drink contains about 85 mg caffeine. However the standard energy drink serving is 16 ounces, which doubles the caffeine to 170 mg. Energy shots are much more concentrated than the drinks; a small 2 ounce shot contains about 200 mg caffeine. Learn more about energy drinks.
  • Supplements. Caffeine supplements contain about 200 mg per tablet, or the amount in 2 cups of brewed coffee.

Caffeine and Health

Caffeine is associated with several health conditions. People have different tolerances and responses to caffeine, partly due to genetic differences. Consuming caffeine regularly, such as drinking a cup of coffee every day, can promote caffeine tolerance in some people so that the side effects from caffeine may decrease over time. Although we tend to associate caffeine most often with coffee or tea, the research below focuses mainly on the health effects of caffeine itself. Visit our features on coffee, tea, and energy drinks for more health information related to those beverages.

Sleep

Caffeine can block the effects of the hormone adenosine, which is responsible for deep sleep. Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors in the brain, which not only lowers adenosine levels but also increases or decreases other hormones that affect sleep, including dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and GABA. Levels of melatonin, another hormone promoting sleep, can drop in the presence of caffeine as both are metabolized in the liver. Caffeine intake later in the day close to bedtime can interfere with good sleep quality. Although developing a caffeine tolerance by taking caffeine regularly over time may lower its disruptive effects,  those who have trouble sleeping may consider minimizing caffeine intake later in the day and before going to bed.

Anxiety

In sensitive individuals, caffeine can increase anxiety at doses of 400 mg or more a day (about 4 cups of brewed coffee). High amounts of caffeine may cause nervousness and speed up heart rate, symptoms that are also felt during an anxiety attack. Those who have an underlying anxiety or panic disorder are especially at risk of overstimulation when overloading on caffeine.

Cardiovascular Disease

Caffeine stimulates the heart, increases blood flow, and increases blood pressure temporarily, particularly in people who do not usually consume caffeine. However, strong negative effects of caffeine on blood pressure have not been found in clinical trials, even in people with hypertension, and cohort studies have not found that coffee drinking is associated with a higher risk of hypertension. Studies also do not show an association of caffeine intake and atrial fibrillation (abnormal heart beat), heart disease, or stroke. 

Weight

Caffeine is often added to weight loss supplements to help “burn calories.” There is no evidence that caffeine causes significant weight loss. It may help to boost energy if one is feeling fatigued from restricting caloric intake, and may reduce appetite temporarily. Caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which plays a role in suppressing hunger, enhancing satiety, and increasing the breakdown of fat cells to be used for energy. Cohort studies following large groups of people suggest that a higher caffeine intake is associated with slightly lower rates of weight gain in the long term. However, a fairly large amount of caffeine (equivalent to 6 cups of coffee a day) may be needed to achieve a modest increase in calorie “burn.” Additional calories obtained from cream, milk, or sweetener added to a caffeinated beverage like coffee or tea can easily negate any calorie deficit caused by caffeine.

Pregnancy and infertility

Caffeine can cross the placenta, and both mother and fetus metabolize caffeine slowly. A high intake of caffeine by the mother can lead to prolonged high caffeine blood levels in the fetus. Reduced blood flow and oxygen levels may result, increasing the risk of miscarriage and low birth weight. However, lower intakes of caffeine have not been found harmful during pregnancy when limiting intakes to no more than 200 mg a day. A review of controlled clinical studies found that caffeine intake, whether low, medium, or high doses, did not appear to increase the risk of infertility. 

Liver Disease 

Most studies on liver disease and caffeine have specifically examined coffee intake. Caffeinated coffee intake is associated with a lower risk of liver cancer, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. Caffeine may prevent the fibrosis (scarring) of liver tissue by blocking adenosine, which is responsible for the production of collagen that is used to build scar tissue. 

Signs of Toxicity

Caffeine toxicity has been observed with intakes of 1.2 grams or more in one dose. Consuming 10-14 grams at one time is believed to be fatal. Caffeine intake up to 10 grams has caused convulsions and vomiting, but recovery is possible in about 6 hours. Side effects at lower doses of 1 gram include restlessness, irritability, nervousness, vomiting, rapid heart rate, and tremors.

Toxicity is generally not seen when drinking caffeinated beverages because a very large amount would need to be taken within a few hours to reach a toxic level (10 gm of caffeine is equal to about 100 cups of brewed coffee). Dangerous blood levels are more often seen with overuse of caffeine pills or tablets. 

Did You Know?

  • Caffeine is not just found in food and beverages but in various medications. It is often added to analgesics (pain relievers) to provide faster and more effective relief from pain and headaches. Headache or migraine pain is accompanied by enlarged inflamed blood vessels; caffeine has the opposite effect of reducing inflammation and narrowing blood vessels, which may relieve the pain.

  • Caffeine can interact with various medications. It can cause your body to break down a medication too quickly so that it loses its effectiveness. It can cause a dangerously fast heart beat and high blood pressure if taken with other stimulant medications. Sometimes a medication can slow the metabolism of caffeine in the body, which may increase the risk of jitteriness and irritability, especially if one tends to drink several caffeinated drinks throughout the day. If you drink caffeinated beverages daily, talk with your doctor about potential interactions when starting a new medication.

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