Caffeine: America’s elixir for the sleepy-eyed, the grumpy, the coffee aficionados, the energy junkies, the stressed, or really just anyone trying to make it through the day. We see it as our savior on long nights of academic reading, a wake-up call after a sleepless Saturday night, the ONLY way to survive a whole day of work, and a staple in the day’s agenda. Surely not everyone feels this favorably towards caffeine, but the vast majority of us do, considering the fact that a whopping 90% of North Americans consciously consume some source of caffeine every day. But when does the occasional pick-me-up become a full-on energy obsession?
Though there is certainly something sentimental about sipping a vanilla roast while reading a copy of the morning paper, we have become so accustomed to the intake of caffeine that it has become our crutch instead of our once-in-awhile aid. We use coffee, tea, energy drinks, and so forth as a way to perpetuate the bad habits that have caused the need for caffeine in the first place. Spent the day procrastinating? Don’t worry. You can drink an espresso and have all of your work done by 3am. Unfortunately, you have a class at 9 and thus only got about 4 hours of sleep. How will you possibly make it through your 3 classes today? 5-Hour Energy will do the trick. In a mid-day slump? There’s a Starbucks latte with your name on it. Instead of uprooting the source of the problem—whether it is lack of sleep, poor time management, or a diet deprived of nutrients—we prefer an immediate, temporary fix that merely masks and reinforces the problem that is leaving us so lethargic or stressed. For instance, an evening cup of coffee will take about 10 to 14 hours to leave your system, meaning you will likely have a loss of necessary sleep. This leaves you fatigued for the next day, relying on caffeine to sustain your energy level, and thus a vicious cycle begins.
As with any addictive substance, frequent consumption leads to a tolerance for the drug. And more studies are showing that too much caffeine can be unsettlingly dangerous. According to the Mayo Clinic, drinking too much can lead to insomnia, muscle tremors, restlessness, accelerated heartbeat, anxiety, and excessive nervousness. Alive.com highlights studies that show that caffeine consumption is related to “increased bladder and stomach cancers, elevated blood pressure, aggravated diabetes and damaged stomach lining. Reports indicate that caffeine may be linked to male infertility as well as birth defects, and can even be passed through mother’s milk into the nursing child.”
Dr. Jack James, Chief of the Journal of Caffeine Research, warns that the stimulant can be lethal and advocates for restrictions and regulations on it. Maybe he has a point. In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it is investigating 18 reported deaths potentially linked to Monster and 5-Hour Energy.
Of course, the research is fairly recent and there is much more we need to know about the substance. It seems that fair-to-moderate consumption of caffeine is not a death sentence; people would be dropping like flies. Then again, there was a time when people were fed the idea that cigarettes were harmless or even good for you. Thus, the lack of knowledge about the long-term effects of the stimulant, coupled with our increasing use of it, is perhaps the most unsettling aspect about this caffeine craze.
Additionally, for the 90% of us, the daily dose of alertness can become rather costly. Taking coffee as an example, if you were to buy a 1.5-dollar 12-ounce cup of coffee every day for a year, you would spend about $547.50 every year just on coffee! If you wanted to be a bit more economical and self-brew, a pound of coffee beans will make approximately 23 12-ounce cups. If the coffee beans cost about $15 and you drink it black every day, you’re dropping about $240 a year. This seems much better than buying a cup of coffee, but this estimate does not consider the cost of the required equipment to make the coffee nor does it include the time cost and labor of actually making it (which for many of us busy bees is quite expensive). And these are very conservative estimates that don’t include drinking more than one cup a day as well as sales tax, creamers, sugars, fancier coffee drinks, etc.; a realistic price estimate is probably much higher.
Yet despite the cost, the ambiguity around the drug, and it’s potentially harmful effects, most of us will continue to use and perhaps abuse caffeine for its short-term yet precious energy-boosting qualities. But before you make your routine pit stop for your beloved Cup of Joe, consider the reason why you’re drinking coffee. Was it due to lack of sleep or is it a social norm that you feel obligated to follow? Instead of putting a Band-Aid on the reason, try solving the core problem or finding healthier, alternative ways to obtain for energy, like regular exercise, prioritizing one’s day more efficiently to allow times for self-care, eating a diet filled with fruits and vegetables instead of simple carbs, etc. As we’ve seen time and time again in various aspects of society, the fast fix is almost never the best fix—or even a desirable one at that.
—Angela Della Croce ’15 is an Economics major.