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David Baxter PhD

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The Buzz on Caffeine Addiction - Understated Experts Say
By Judy Morgan

University of New Orleans student Shelley Villemarette begins each morning with a can of Mountain Dew. ?I have been hooked on Mountain Dew since I was 12 years old,? she says with a smile.

Throughout the course of the day the 98 lb. sophomore will also consume 32 ounces of sweet iced-tea, another 12-ounce can of Mountain Dew, and a 12-ounce can of Barq?s root beer, all to wash down at least five chocolate chip cookies and three scoops of chocolate ice cream. But it?s not the sugar in all these products that she craves. Villemarette considers herself addicted to caffeine.

?Out of a scale of 1 to 10, I?d consider myself an 8,? she says of her addiction level.

The average amount of caffeine consumed by adults in America is approximately 200 mg a day. Villemarette estimates that she ingests about 300 mg by dinner time. She is not alone. Recent surveys show that more and more college students are consuming exorbitant amounts of caffeine, and many are developing a potentially harmful habit.

One culprit is the rising popularity of high-end coffee shops, like Starbucks, and high-caffeine energy drinks, like Red Bull. Drinking these products has become a fashion statement among younger people.

Starbuck?s coffee sales surged 25 percent last year, to $585 million. This is up from $468 million in 2005.

According to the makers of Red Bull, sales have doubled every year since the energy drink was introduced in 1997.

?Caffeine is a stimulant,? says Dr. Sherise Olivier, a family practitioner. ?A stimulant is a type of drug that temporarily increases or accelerates physiological or organic activity. And, like other stimulant drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamine, caffeine is addictive and can be physically and mentally abusive to the body.?

However, caffeine is not all bad. According to Mark Kruse, a doctor of Chiropractic and Holistic Medicine, recent studies have found caffeine might help prevent Parkinson?s disease and curb the symptoms of Type 2 diabetes.

It?s no secret that Starbucks is the most popular coffee retailer, and a Starbuck?s coffee does contain more caffeine per cup than most other coffee retailers? drinks, giving consumers stronger caffeine highs.

?Starbucks has a much higher caffeine content in their coffee than other coffee retailer?s products?200 mg in cup of a coffee as opposed to the normal 100 mg a cup,? Elmwood Fitness Center sports nutritionist Molly Kimball, R.D. said.

Many college students use Starbucks, other caffeinated drinks, or caffeine pills to stay awake and alert.

?I drink soft drinks when I get home from school to give me the energy to go to work,? Villemarette says. ?Then I use caffeine late at night to help me study.?

In 2003, Hope Graven of Loyola University?s Department of Psychology surveyed a number of college students and found no relation between caffeine consumption and study habits.

Kruse points out that late-night caffeine intake can sometimes work against students.

?Caffeine can cause lack of sleep, which can lead to poor scores on tests,? he said.

Lack of sleep is not the only unhealthy side effect of too much caffeine. The American Psychiatric Association recently identified two caffeine-related disorders: caffeine-induced anxiety disorder and caffeine-induced sleep disorder. Their finding is closely linked to a more serious psychiatric problem: the caffeine allergy.

Ruth Whalen, a medical laboratory technician and author of the Welcome to the Dance: A Masked Cerebral Allergy and Progressive Toxic Dementia, was a victim of the disorder, an obscure cerebral allergy that often masks itself as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and even PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder).

Studies show caffeine consumption increases the body?s production of chemicals such as serotonin, adrenaline, and dopamine to unhealthy levels.

The longer you are exposed to a drug, the higher chance you have of developing a tolerance, or allergy to the drug, Whalen explains. Long-term caffeine junkies have the highest risk, but some people can develop the allergy on the first few sips.

?The allergy is just like a peanut allergy, except your throat does not close up,? Whalen said.

Since caffeine is a legal and popular drug, no one realizes that when they are being affected.?

If caffeine consumption is not cut-down to a minimum, the allergy can worsen with time and psychiatric symptoms might intensify. Caffeine consumers are also exposed to the risk of developing stress-related illnesses.

?Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and raises your adrenaline, which triggers your body to go into what is called flight or fright mode? a normal body response to danger or stress,? Kruse said.

The problem, according to Kruse, is that caffeine drinkers are not using up the energy that flight or fright mode creates.

?When the body is constantly put in flight or fright mode and remains inactive, the result is damaging,? he says. Long-term stomach ailments, muscle tension, high blood pressure and other stress-related sicknesses can result.

Just how addictive is caffeine?
Addiction is thought to take place after drinking seven cups of coffee or the equivalent over a rapid period, but it can differ from person to person. Some people, however, seem to be immune to the habit. They can drink a gallon of coffee a day and never become addicted, Cruz said.

The most agonizing aspect of caffeine addiction is caffeine withdrawal.

?When someone does not get their usual dose of caffeine, they can experience symptoms such as irritability, fatigue, depression, drowsiness and even flu-like symptoms that same day, or a couple of days after,? Oliver said.

Severe, continuous headaches are also a distinguishing symptom of caffeine withdrawal.

?A recent study at Johns Hopkin?s University observed that 50 percent of all caffeine withdrawers had headaches,? Kruse said. ?Thirteen percent of these people had severe, migraine-like headaches, and 17 percent had serious, long headaches.?

Villemarette, the student with the 300 mg a day addiction, can attest to the study?s findings.

?I have noticed that if I do not drink Mountain Dew during the day, or if the caffeine starts to wear off, then I will get a bad migraine,? she said.

To minimize withdrawal symptoms, Kimball recommends drinking tea. ?Tea is often helpful?green tea, or any type of tea?it?s got caffeine, but a lesser amount,? she said. ?It can help someone to cut back gradually.?

Caffeine?s damaging long-term effects combined with painful withdrawal symptoms aren?t enough to stop some individuals from satisfying their craving.

?I am aware that the amount of caffeine I consume on a daily basis is very unhealthy,? says Villemarette. ?But I love caffeine too much to do anything about it.?

Kruse also gives advice to those looking for a caffeine alternative. ?Exercise, eat right and drink lots of water,? he says. ?If you have a healthy lifestyle and practice good habits, you won?t need caffeine to keep you alert, you already will be alert.?
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