Caffeine consumption gets talked about a lot, and it can be unclear whether it has a positive or negative impact on our health. Let’s start first with the common sources of caffeine:
- tea (non-herbal varieties)
- chocolate or cocoa
- sports or energy drinks
- some prescription and nonprescription drugs such as cold, allergy or pain medication
- smoothie mixes
- enhanced waters
No matter how you choose to consume it, caffeine behaves like a pyschoactive stimulant drug by arousing the central nervous system. The average person consumes 300mg of caffeine in some form each day (between 1-2 cups of coffee), and it’s been stated that just 500-600mg per day can lead to insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, irritability, upset stomach, a fast heartbeat and even muscle tremors.
The reaction of caffeine in the body can be boiled down to an energy boost, followed by the letdown. It increases the rate at which your neurons fire and triggers an upswing in cortisol (stress hormone) and dopamine (which activates the pleasure center in the brain). When this rush is over, your adrenaline levels drop and fatigue, irritability, inability to concentrate and headache take over causing most people to crave the high again. Caffeine distances you from your natural energy cycles, tricking your body into a constant state of alert.
The effects of caffeine can be as individual as each person - some are able to maintain a tolerance their entire life, for others it may not be an issue for years and suddenly they find it worsens their chronic anxiety or even more severe concerns. One difference we’ll talk about is how women detoxify caffeine in comparison to men, and how this may shift at different periods of their lives.
Childbearing Age Women
At least forty percent of women in this age group experience some symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) including abdominal cramps, headache and breast tenderness. Reducing your consumption of caffeine can relieve some of these symptoms, especially the nervous irritability and breast sensitivity. There is a subset of people who are slow detoxifiers - meaning they metabolize caffeine at a slower rate so it lingers longer, increasing the potential for negative effects, particularly your risk for heart attack.
Pregnant women who take in caffeine tend to give birth to smaller babies who, after birth, display signs of caffeine withdrawal because the caffeine had permeated the placental barrier. If you are breastfeeding, it is best to stop ingesting caffeine as it becomes a component of the breast milk.
Post-Childbearing Age Women
Some women find that caffeine affects them different as their hormones begin to shift, such as during menopause. This is likely caused by a combination of estrogen loss and the decrease in rates of metabolism and detoxification that occur naturally with age. Many menopausal women experience hot flashes, sleeplessness/insomnia, vaginal dryness, mood swings and osteoporosis. According to some studies, all of these symptoms seem to be exacerbated by caffeine. Caffeine also speeds up the aging process and brings on menopause earlier in life.
Menopausal women are also more susceptible to bone density loss. Caffeine blocks the absorption of the minerals calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin D which are needed to prevent or reverse this condition; therefore bone density decreases as osteoporosis worsens. Women of all ages should be aware that caffeine is associated with risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high homocysteine levels which lead to heart disease.
So how can you move toward a healthier relationship to caffeine? Caffeine is not an easy drug to quit for some women but there are several changes you can make to ease into less or no caffeine. When you wake up, start with a glass of water and a high-protein breakfast. If you still want your cup of coffee or tea, drink it after you have eaten. Getting a full eight hours of sleep is important for detoxifying but will also increase your energy levels so wake up less tired and craving caffeine. Lastly, this is a perfect time to add a multivitamin complete with essential fatty acids, calcium and magnesium - drinking caffeine depletes your body of necessary nutrients.