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Coffee Talk: How Much Caffeine is Too Much?

Posted by Valerie Henderson on Jul 21st 2020

Caregivers run on Dunkin. And Starbucks. And Tim Hortons. Tending to the needs of a family and caring for a loved one with underlying medical issues, while often simultaneously working full-time, takes a lot out of one person. Sometimes the only way to get out of bed in the morning is with the promise of that sweet, soul-saving first cup of coffee.

Or maybe that's just me.

Caregivers run on Dunkin. And Starbucks. And Tim Hortons. Tending to the needs of a family and caring for a loved one with underlying medical issues, while often simultaneously working full-time, takes a lot out of one person. Sometimes the only way to get out of bed in the morning is with the promise of that sweet, soul-saving first cup of coffee.

Or maybe that's just me.

I am what you call a reluctant high-achiever. By nature, I am lazy, but out of necessity, I have functioned as the Energizer Bunny for most of my life. I worked full-time during high school while joining every conceivable club not because I wanted to, but because I knew I needed to save money for college and earn scholarships.

Now I work full-time as a mother with full custody of two busy, social, sports-playing teenage boys, plus three stepchildren and a host of animals. I love my job, I love my kids, and I wouldn't change my life for anything in the world, but sometimes the frantic, unyielding nature of my schedule demands a crutch, and that crutch is coffee.

Up until last week, everything felt relatively manageable, and I usually skated by with a cup of coffee per day. But then my husband, who helps me stay sane in every sense, had surgery. It wasn't major surgery, but the recovery is grueling enough to take him out of the game for a couple of weeks, leaving everything we normally team up to do on my plate, plus the added responsibility of caregiving for him.

I've found myself slowly leaning into two, then three cups of coffee a day to keep going. As I write this, it's 9:30am my time and I'm already contemplating a fourth. Which leads me to wonder: Exactly how much is too much?

By the numbers

First, let's look at the amount of caffeine in an average beverage. A Venti Americano from Starbucks contains close to 300 milligrams of caffeine, while a cup of drip-brewed coffee made at home typically has about 100 mg. Instant brews boast only half as much, which explains why my grandparents seemed to plow through a couple pots per day without being jittery.

A cup of brewed tea usually only contains about 30 mg, although some varieties and brands are stronger than others. A can of Red Bull contains 80 mg, while a can of Coke has around 39 mg.

On the lower end of the spectrum, a mug of cocoa only has 5 mg, which is the same as a one-ounce square of milk chocolate, but dark chocolate shoots up to about 20 mg.

The Mayo clinic notes that up to 400 mg of caffeine a day appears to be safe for healthy adults, so you can do the math based on your drink of choice.

I can quit if I want to, right?

Caffeine is unlikely to cause long-term addiction, but coffee fanatics will attest that an overload can make a person jittery and anxious for a few hours, craving the next dose.

Multiple studies have shown that caffeine won't cause psychological dependence, but java junkies who suddenly quit may notice withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, tiredness, and a headache within 24 hours. You can avoid such problems by cutting back gradually or moving from four cups of coffee to three cups of coffee and a cup of tea, then two cups of coffee and two cups of tea, etc.

Should I avoid caffeine if I'm pregnant?

Almost all doctors now agree that a cup of coffee each day is perfectly safe for expectant mothers. Consuming more, however, may be risky for your baby. A Danish study of 86,000 pregnant women found a link between unusually high coffee consumption and complications during delivery.

Among other things, the study noted that fetal death was twice as common if the mother drank eight or more cups of coffee every day. Even by Linda Richman's definition, that's a lot of coffee.

What about sleep?

Caffeine can help you power through a morning of caregiving or a bout of afternoon grogginess, but it's no substitute for the energy you earn through actual sleep.

To make sure caffeine doesn't interfere with a visit from the sandman, avoid coffee or any other source of caffeine before hitting the hay. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reports that caffeine has "important disruptive effects on sleep and provides empirical support for sleep hygiene recommendations to refrain from substantial caffeine use for a minimum of six hours prior to bedtime."

If you want to be extra safe, cut yourself off after lunch and stick to caffeine-free drinks like decaf coffee, decaf tea, healthy juices, seltzers, and water.

Now for the good news!

The benefits of caffeine far outweigh the risks. Among other bits of happy news, coffee in particular can offer protection against Parkinson's disease, liver disease, liver cancer, and type 2 diabetes.

True, caffeine can remove a bit of calcium from your bones, but if you're getting plenty of calcium in other forms like green leafy vegetables, dairy products, nuts, and supplements each day, you can enjoy your tea and coffee without worry.

And let's not forget the fact that multiple studies have shown coffee's ability to promote a healthy heart. One study found that consuming two eight-ounce servings per day led to an 11% lower risk of heart failure, and another meta-analysis found that consuming caffeine in moderation can benefit cardiovascular health and help keep blood pressure at a healthy level.

It's impossible to espresso how happy this all makes me.

On that note, my Keurig is calling my name.

Mugs and kisses!
Val

Having written for companies ranging from MTV to the Winter Olympics, Valerie Henderson spearheads Carewell's communications and PR efforts. A resident of majestic Park City, Utah, Valerie enjoys four of the things her region is most famous for: hiking, independent film, a giant family, and incredibly weak beer.

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