Caffeine is a strong stimulant of the xanthine class. Naturally occurring, it’s the world’s most commonly consumed upper. Religions even exempt caffeine from restrictions on intoxicants because no one would worship a god that didn’t let you have a tea or a Coke.
Caffeine is an addictive psychostimulant drug. It’s not known exactly how many hundreds of millions of people worldwide are hooked on caffeine. It is known that 90% of Americans consume caffeine or caffeinated beverages daily. Frequent usage causes tolerance to develop. The user now has to up his dose which will exacerbate side effects like hypertension, anxiety and significant sleep disturbance.
It is distributed in a wide variety of forms, much like cannabis or cocaine, but is almost exclusively dosed orally. It is not difficult to find caffeine. High and low-end places at every end of the price spectrum can provide you with a Mountain Dew or a civet poop double espresso shot. It’s cheapest to get in the “No-Doz” or caffeine pill formulation.
More common and familiar formulations are delivered via its natural occurrence in plants where caffeine acts as a pesticide, killing predatory insects. It’s found in coffee beans, the leaves of the tea bush or yerba maté plant, and the kola nut of “cola” fame. Shortly after consumption, a sense of wakefulness comes over you. For many of you, this is the relief from your morning exhaustion, which is actually caffeine withdrawal. The headache, mental fog and general grogginess will fade away. Now you feel “normal” and ready to take on your day, at least until you burn through that first cup or can. But we don’t think of caffeine in terms of milligrams or mg/L. We think of it in cups, glasses and gallons, so how do you compare?
Google provides a handy caffeine dosage widget when you search for things like “caffeine in coffee” or “caffeine in cola.” Many companies nowadays are printing the caffeine content of their drinks on the side of the can. A 12oz (355ml) can of Coca-Cola gives you just 34mg. A 8.4oz (250ml) can of Red Bull ups the ante to 80mg. A 7oz (207ml) cup of coffee has 25% more, averaging around 100mg with some drip coffees having up to 175mg of caffeine. This varies significantly depending on your brew. Decaf coffee has only around 10mg of caffeine or less. The caffeine is either washed away by water, volatile organic solvents or more badassfully supercritical carbon dioxide, which is carbon dioxide at such a low temperature but high pressure that it acts like both a gas and a liquid.
It’s legality and easy availability made users of caffeine cavalier about their addiction and high consumption. There’s an entire industry built around the cult of caffeine. There are caffeinated gums, caffeinated foods, caffeinated body washes and even caffeinated lip balm. The FDA has already started an investigation on added caffeine in foods. But who would find caffeine offensive?
In 1909 the US government seized some Coca-Cola and started a case based on the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. The case “United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola” rose all the way to the Supreme Court. Commissioner of the FDA Harvey Wiley believed that caffeine was dangerous, especially to children. The lawsuit was to force Coca-Cola to remove caffeine from the formula (cocaine was removed in 1903). Their argument was that the drink was adulterated with a poisonous ingredient (caffeine) and was misbranded because Coca-Cola had neither any coca and only trace amounts of the kola nut.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Coca-Cola. The US government continued its campaign against caffeine where the 1912 Congress tried to pass 2 bills adding “caffeine” to the list of habit-forming and dangerous substances. The government appealed in 1913, but lost again, appealed again in 1916 and won. Coca-Cola had already voluntarily reduced the amount of caffeine in their product and offered to pay all legal costs to settle the matter and avoid further litigation. Commissioner Wiley had resigned by then so the FDA was uninterested in taking the matter further.
Caffeine is a capricious mistress. Its half life, while nominally 4-6 hours, has an extremely wide range in people. Do you smoke heavily? Get ready to burn through your caffeine faster than the average person. Are you on any number of drugs that can inhibit the action of the CYP1A2 liver enzyme? Get ready for it to last longer and hit harder. Do you have a tolerance like 90% of Americans? You’ll need more to feel anything and the side effects will become more prominent.
Caffeine’s benefits as a stimulant are obvious. There are, however, hidden dangers. Extensive consumption — like in Scandinavians with their 8 cups of coffee a day — result in elevated levels of homocysteine which can lead to heart disease. There’s also the sheer discomfort of a caffeine high. The high blood pressure can lead to a vascular headache. The anxiety and elevated heart rate can trigger panic attacks. Even its stimulation is dirty. Unlike amphetamines which can provoke significant euphoria and a strong sense of focus, caffeine can leave your heart pounding but your mind still scattered.
A more obvious danger is caffeine mixed with depressants, Four Loko being the most notorious case. Four Loko and its contemporaries like Joose and Tilt were energy drinks plus malt liquor plus cough syrup flavor. It was the approximate equivalent of 3 cups of coffee and 3 bottles of beer, $2, easy to drink, all in one nightmarishly colorful 23.5oz (695ml) can. Alcohol’s depressant effect is the killer here, but caffeine’s the accomplice. By counteracting some of alcohol’s down with an up, the victim could easily consume much more alcohol than they would normally and remain coherent.
Your blood alcohol level will now start rising but you won’t feel that way. The energy of caffeine keeps you standing, keeps you Four Loko-ponging, and your blood alcohol continues to rise.
But caffeine’s half-life is much shorter. As the caffeine burns away the person suddenly starts feeling much drunker than they would normally. Alcohol’s effects take hold. Extreme nausea, vomiting, confusion signal the start of the decline. The blackout comes soon after. A bunch of college kids eventually died, as they do.
I don’t like caffeine. It’s not a clean stimulant. It’s likely bad for our health and its highly addictive. I think the world would be a much different place if it was ok to make Red Bull with amphetamines. We’d have been to Mars and back. We’d have a cure for cancer. On the other hand, we’d all be sleep deprived, twitchy motherfuckers who are ready to fly off the handle at any moment. We’d have started pointless wars worldwide. We’d wear teabags on our hats and be convinced our president was a secret enemy agent. Thank goodness none of that happened.
Have fun; try not to die.