It’s pretty common knowledge that the drinking age in the US is 21. It is a checkpoint that marks a passing into adulthood, opening doors for more possibilities, more freedoms, and more responsibilities as well, as it should. Being able to consume alcohol, for example, is one freedom that comes with turning 21. It means you can have a drink with dinner, go to bars, and legally purchase alcohol at the store. What this also means, however, is that you are expected to know how to drink responsibly. This means not getting behind the wheel while intoxicated, not drinking to the point of memory loss and physical illness, and most importantly, not letting it take a life, whether that be your own or others, as a result of intoxication.
But this piece is not about alcohol. It is about a substance that doesn’t quite carry the same potential dangers but should perhaps be looked at with more care than it currently is, especially for the future health of adolescents. The substance in question is caffeine. Caffeine, whether that be from coffee, tea, soda, or any other food product, is one of the most widely consumed proactive substances in the world (Clark & Landolt, 2017). Most people in the US consume caffeine to battle drowsiness and sleep-deprivation, otherwise known as a case of the Mondays. It makes us more alert and ready to tackle the day. What most people don’t know is how caffeine actually does this to our bodies. Sleep is an incredibly underrated aspect of our health, both physical and mental. According to Matthew Walker, author of the book Why We Sleep, “sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.” (Walker, 2017). There has been an abundance of research in the last few decades that have come out attaching lack of sleep to things like Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and obesity, among others (Walker, 2017). The point is, sleep is incredibly important. Yet, we as a species are the only ones who will purposefully prevent ourselves from sleeping if it means doing other activities, forgoing an essential part of our health to study more for an exam, get that project done, or even simply just keep watching that really good tv show.
One main way that people justify not getting sleep is by telling themselves things like, “well as long as I have my morning coffee I’ll be fine,” viewing caffeine intake as the simple solution to sleep-deprivation, the only consequence for which is feeling tired the next day. What people, mostly adolescents, don’t realize is that this kind of cyclical practice of not sleeping and consuming caffeine to balance that out has incredibly negative effects on sleep and, therefore, overall health. We have a natural clock in our bodies that tell us, more or less, when it is time to sleep and when it is time to wake up: our Circadian Rhythm (Walker, 2017). From the moment we wake up for the day our bodies begin to build up a chemical called adenosine. The longer we are awake, the more adenosine we build up, and the more adenosine we have built up, the stronger our desire to sleep will be in our minds. Eventually, we build up so much adenosine that our bodies succumb and we are drifted off to sleep (Walker, 2017). Coffee, however, works directly against adenosine. When we consume caffeine, it blocks adenosine receptors in our body, the sites that allow adenosine to take effect. With these receptors blocked, our bodies cannot detect the build-up of adenosine and therefore stay wide awake. Once the caffeine has completely left our system, which takes about 10-14 hours, all the adenosine that had been building up that entire time floods our bodies and we are hit with an intense drowsiness, otherwise known as the “coffee crash” (Walker, 2017). If you just continue to consume caffeine to battle the crash, this simply leads to a caffeine dependence which only grows stronger, leading to addiction and potential withdrawal syndrome. Withdrawal is a collection of multiple signs and symptoms that are not present prior to administration of the substance in question (Roehrs & Roth, 2008).
In a review of literature regarding caffeine withdrawal, 57 experimental studies and 9 surveys were looked at. The results of each study were categorized in terms of the most common withdrawal effects found as a result of caffeine consumption (Juliano & Griffiths, 2014). The major class categories as a result of the literature review were headache, fatigue, decreased energy, decreased alertness, drowsiness/sleepiness, decreased contentedness, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and fogginess (Juliano et al., 2014). Additionally, flu-like symptoms, nausea, vomiting and stiffness of joints were also considered possible symptom categories. The symptoms appeared after 12–24 hours of abstinence and after as little as 100 mg of caffeine for 3–7 days. Headaches showed to be the most common withdrawal effect found in over 78% of the studies reviewed (Juliano et al. 2014).
Caffeine has proven to possess the potential to damage personal health through withdrawal syndrome and affecting sleep quality. We mostly see alcohol related health problems in adults due to legal drinking ages. Caffeine, however, has no such legal limit and is being consumed in heavy doses by adolescents as young as 12 years of age (Owens, 2014). Adolescents are in a particularly fragile stage of life as their brains are still developing and, therefore, are vulnerable to the negative effects of external substances or environments that can have detrimental effects on their well-being lasting well into adulthood. Like studies done on adults, caffeine effects on adolescents similarly increase shortened sleep duration and daytime sleepiness (Owens, 2014). Adolescents are just as susceptible to the downward spiral of caffeine dependency, if not more given the commodification of energy drinks and Starbucks’ ultra-sugary, caffeinated drinks which have taken such a hold on adolescent culture (Marczinski et al. 2012).
Caffeine dependence is not only bad for adolescents in terms of withdrawal symptoms which can negatively affect physical health, but the way that caffeine consumption has been proven to reduce the amount of time spent in deep sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, has equally negative effects on cognitive functions, such as memory and learning, that are essential to a well-developed brain (Owens, 2014). Matthew Walker also explains the effect that reduced sleep can have on the memory centers of the brain, specifically the hippocampus and cortex. Sleep serves as a major memory aid both in preparing the brain for making new memories and also cementing those memories after the fact and boosting memory recall. As we obtain new memories, they are stored in our short-term memory bank, the hippocampus, where we retrieve those memories until we sleep (Walker, 2017). After a good night’s sleep, those memories in the hippocampus are moved to our long-term storage bank, the cortex, where they are cemented in our brains more permanently (Walker, 2017). This process is particularly powerful in adolescents and young children who are acquiring new information and making new memories at a more rapid pace. Without a good night’s sleep, memories stored in the hippocampus will not be transferred into long-term memory as efficiently thus impairing memory recall later down the road (Palmer, 2017).
Caffeine, with such a tight grip on society, is not going anywhere. We can, however, benefit from knowing exactly what we are putting in our bodies given the frequency with which most us of consume it. In the same style that alcohol has so much education attached to it given how dangerous of an affect it can have on humans, a similar awareness should be attached to caffeine, erasing the attitude that people can down it like water in order to keep their bodies functioning properly and efficiently. Focusing on adolescents could have increased importance given that adolescents in the developmental stage are more vulnerable to the long-term effects of caffeine and are more naïve to the details of what caffeine does to the body and view it on the same level as eating a bag of chips. Anything with addictive and/or dependent properties requires an adequate amount awareness and responsibility in order to consume responsibly.
Clark, I., & Landolt, H. P. (2017). Coffee, caffeine, and sleep: A systematic review of epidemiological studies and randomized controlled trials. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 31, 70–78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2016.01.006
Juliano, L.M., Griffiths, R.R. (2004). A Critical Review of Caffeine Withdrawal: Empirical Validation of Symptoms and Signs, Incidence, Severity, and Associated Features. Psychopharmacology 176, 1–29 https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-004-2000-x
Marczinski, C. A., Fillmore, M. T., Henges, A. L., Ramsey, M. A., & Young, C. R. (2012). Effects of energy drinks mixed with alcohol on information processing, motor coordination and subjective reports of intoxication. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 20(2), 129–138. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026136
Owens J. (2014). Insufficient sleep in adolescents and young adults: An update on causes and consequences. Pediatrics. 134(3), e921-e932. doi:10.1542/peds.2014-1696
Palmer MA, Sauer JD, Ling A, Riza J. (2017). Caffeine Cravings Impair Memory and Metacognition. Memory. 25(9):1225-1234. doi:10.1080/09658211.2017.1282968
Roehrs, T., & Roth, T. (2008). Caffeine: Sleep and daytime sleepiness. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 12(2), 153–162. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2007.07.004
Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep. Scribner.