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Caffeine - do you need it??

Everyone knows that person.


The one slamming an energy drink before their morning coffee. The one who crushes a can of rocket fuel before AND after their workout or group PT session. The one who insists these pills give them the jolt they need to make it through the shift. The one who gets angry or frazzled if they haven’t had their [3rd?] cuppa Joe yet.


Maybe you are that person.


Ok, so what is caffeine, anyway? I’ll spare you the overly geeky details, but in short, caffeine is a compound found naturally in some foods, acts as a mild stimulant, and is therefore technically classified as a drug. It can also be artificially manufactured and added to food products. This wonderful little compound is known for increasing energy and endurance…in some people. That “some” is key here- we’ll get back to that.


As a stimulant, caffeine raises both blood pressure and heart rate (so if you have any kind of cardiac disease or disorder- check with your physician before consuming caffeine!), and that is what gives people that “energetic” feeling. Ever tried to take a nap or just relax after a burst of heart-pounding adrenaline? Same basic physiological principle here: it’s highly unlikely you’ll fall asleep on the job with an elevated heart rate.

In addition to elevated HR and BP, caffeine affects the central nervous system (CNS), most notably by increasing dopamine. This boost can improve focus, and allow your body to work longer and harder, while not feeling as fatigued. Dopamine also improves mood, which can feel wonderful, especially on a long shift. If you tolerate it well, a little caffeine just might provide you with some extra energy and focus going into the work day!

As you can see, caffeine can have some serious benefits! It can also have some very real drawbacks.


First off, as I alluded to previously, caffeine doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. Different people have different tolerance levels, what may work for you may not work for your partner. What works for your crewmate, may not work for you! For example, I am (thankfully) not terribly sensitive to caffeine, and I simply love the taste of coffee. I savor my morning brew, occasionally have a midday cup, enjoy dark chocolate in the evening, and like to end the day with a steaming mug…and can go to bed a couple of hours later. My friend on the other hand, drinks no coffee, tea, or energy drinks, and struggles to get to sleep if she simply has a bit of dark chocolate after lunch! Everybody has a different chemical makeup. Make sure you know how you react to caffeine before cracking a can or chugging a Venti before shift!


Most people are familiar with the other potential downsides of caffeine, especially if taken in excess. These include the “jitters” (remember that increased heart rate?), increased anxiety that’s otherwise unexplained, feeling shaky, unusual sweating, insomnia, headaches, upset stomach, and increased urination that could lead to dehydration. Much like sugar, caffeine can also give you the “crash” after the initial energy wears off, and your physical body catches up to how hard you’ve been working. Additionally, if caffeine is keeping you from sleeping, try having it earlier in the day, or having less. This goes especially for those working 2nd or 3rd shift, and who must get their sleep in the light of day. Not only do you battle fighting your circadian rhythm, but excess caffeine may prevent you from getting a solid period of rest.


The last major drawback to discuss is the infamous withdrawal symptoms. Often the subject of lighthearted jokes, caffeine withdrawal can be fairly serious. As I mentioned before, caffeine is classified as a drug, and therefore can be highly addictive, especially for those more sensitive to the compound. Cutting down on consumption, or even quitting completely comes with its own set of struggles. As with any other addictive substance, it is typically advisable to wean yourself from caffeine slowly, to minimize the withdrawal symptoms as much as possible. Consider cutting 1 source of caffeine out per day for a week or so, and gauge how you feel. Mentally check in with yourself- are you dealing with raging headaches or muscle pain? Irritability? Lethargy and fatigue? These symptoms would be problematic for the average office worker, but as an emergency first responder, the consequences of suffering these side effects could prove dangerous to yourself and others.

Just as a friendly reminder, I am not a physician or addiction counselor. If you are struggling with any of these symptoms, including depression, please reach out for professional help! Setting up an appointment with a clinician is much less embarrassing than crashing your station’s vehicle because you couldn’t stay focused or alert.


Alright, so after reading all this, you’re ready to cut back on your caffeine consumption. Or maybe you can’t wait to get up and pour yourself a cup of Joe. Or maybe you’re simply wondering just how many things contain caffeine? Glad you asked…

As I stated earlier, caffeine is a naturally occurring substance, however it can be added to consumable products as well. Natural sources of caffeine include coffee, chocolate (cocoa), and tea (black and green have the highest content).

Products that have added caffeine include energy drinks (carbonated and non-carbonated), soda, migraine medication, “energy shots”, and even things like gum and candy bars! Manufacturers know that caffeine is an addictive substance, and consumers will come back for more. Be cognizant of the products you buy on a day to day basis, and check the label to see just how much caffeine you’re actually getting!


Which brings us to…how much is too much? Although caffeine sensitivity differs between people, the FDA suggests healthy adults have no more than 400 mg of caffeine per day. Again, check the label- many of the most popular energy drinks have 300-450 mg in one can! Consuming 2-3 cans per day on top of coffee and a chocolate bar (or two)? You may want to consider cutting back a bit. Who knows, you just might discover energy you never knew you had!

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