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Mysterious Caffeine:

The "Lowdown" on the Great Uplift

Kings and moralists have argued against caffeine-containing beverages, but their use has persisted. Medical journals burst forth periodically with reports of studies that either implicate caffeine in hypertension, adrenal exhaustion, and stimulation of cholesterol production or exonerate it as a harmless and safe stimulant.

Coffee-lovers probably pay little attention to the varying reports, while others, who must have something warm to sip in moments of boredom or repose, seek out decaffeinated versions of their favorite beverage.

A new book, Caffeine, published by Springer-Verlag. price $29.00, provides a panorama of recent research about the substance. Although necessarily technical, the thrust of its contents will be grasped by any reader with an informed interest in the health sciences.

The volume also provides a convenient source of authoritative information for the wide audience with direct technical concerns for matters relating to the biology of caffeine. It also affords a fascinating insight into the formidable problems facing regulators who must render judgement on a widely used substance that is usually entangled in controversy.

Since the year 1820, when caffeine was first isolated from the green coffee bean, controversy has raged about its safety. There are other elements in coffee that contribute to whatever problems are perceived. Chemicals known as xanthines, whose effects are not clearly understood, are also present in coffee. Decaffeinization leaves most of them intact.

Patients who have been diagnosed as sufferers of gout are usually warned against caffeine beverages. The reasons are not absolutely clear, but research reported in the book notes that, in most studies, uric acid formation is heightened when caffeine is ingested.

Without ascribing any dangerous effects to one particular characteristic of the substance, the authors note that caffeine crosses the blood-brain barrier quickly -- one of the rare substances to accomplish this feat. Alcohol is another.

Experiments that involved studying caffeine metabolism in newborn children reveal the possible hazards caused by slow caffeine metabolism and retarded urinary excretion. Pregnant women should be cautioned about the use of caffeine during gestation.

Individuals who are taking various prescription drugs, such as warfarin, antipyrine, diazepam, aminopyrine, and cimetidine would be interested in knowing that studies reported in the book indicate an arrested metabolism of medication when caffeine is used simultaneously. Under these conditions, it should be noted, the drugs will be retained in the bloodstream longer.

It should be noted that when researchers deal with caffeine, there are implications for tea and cocoa. Chocolate, of course, is usually high in caffeine content.

Caffeine in beverages and foods varies considerably. In the case of coffee, variations in brewing methods determine the caffeine content. Percolated, roasted, and ground coffee are about 10% higher in caffeine than instant coffee. Drip coffee contains fewer milligrams in an ounce than percolated. Most teas approximate coffee in caffeine content. Instant tea contains less. Chocolate bars and cola drinks have modest content of caffeine, while diet colas register almost the same as regular colas. (The Food and Drug Administration notes that percolated coffee is in the lower range than drip coffee.)

Especially valuable is the study's inclusion of caffeine's effects on the cardiovascular system. The contributors cautiously note that studies are inconclusive. "Coffee has been shown to be made up of hundreds of chemical constituents, all with potential pharmacological effects. It would be remarkable if caffeine proved to be the only substance of significance."

The subject of caffeine causing arrhythmias is not conclusive, nor is its effect upon hypertension. Many contradictions have been reported, and the dilemma is intensified by the knowledge that few studies have been made, considering the wide range of the substance.

The studies reported in Caffeine are not conclusive, as the researchers admit. Scarcity of investigational material hampers coming to firm conclusions.

What is known is that for most individuals moderate intake of the substance can pose little risk. The Food and Drug Administration has rated caffeine as safe for consumption. Critics are not satisfied with that designation, complaining that its presence in foods is so prevalent that most users are heavily involved with it.

The value of this book is that its cautionary tone is tempered, and for those who consider caffeine important to their diet a green light is given.

Caffeine should be recognized as a potent substance. Coffee, in its most frequently used form, should be used only with particular reservations: it should be fresh because stale coffee furthers the dangers of rancidity. Moderate use is emphasized. Even in healthy people, the hazards of excess stimulation of the adrenal glands can lead to adrenal exhaustion, a condition that has a counterpart in serious degenerative diseases.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Vegetus Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1989
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