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Local nutritionists talk dos and don’ts of caffeine consumption

From how it can affect your body to tips for weaning away, here’s what you need to know about excessive caffeine intake.

coffee beans and caffeine
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If you struggle to start your day without at least one cup of coffee in your system, you are not alone.

As of last year, 64% of Americans age 18 or over said they have a cup of coffee every single day, which is the highest it’s been in six years, according to an annual report from the National Coffee Association

While consuming concentrated caffeine on its own can be potentially lethal, according to the FDA, coffee drinking isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as you stay below the recommended 400 milligrams a day, amounting to about four cups of brewed coffee or 10 cans of soda. Yet, consistent coffee drinking in high doses can potentially affect our cognitive abilities, according to nutritionist Susan Moore, M.S., R.D., based in Springfield and nutritionist Maya Hickman, M.S., R.D.N., of FoodCure Nutrition Counseling, LLC.  

Here, Moore and Hickman share their knowledge on knowing when it’s time to quit the hard stuff for a while, and exactly how to do it.

Why do most people think of caffeine as something that is “bad” for health?
SM: It’s a central nervous system stimulant and is treated in the same category as medication and alcohol, which is why you often have withdrawals if you do quit. But it’s not really black and white because it depends on what side effects you are having from caffeine. So for most of us, it is dependent on dose and whether or not you can feel the addictive piece to it. Some people may get jittery and might not sleep as well, but that isn’t universal. If you start feeling anxiety, irritability or are a bad sleeper, then yes you need to get decaf coffee. 

It turns out a little bit of caffeine tends to help people focus. For people who have ADHD, caffeine can help modulate their ability to focus. Unless you have a really high dependence on coffee, I think two cups is enough and you can keep drinking the caffeine.

MH: It can have adverse side effects, such as insomnia and anxiety. However, underneath all of that, what worries me when I work with my clients is that excessive coffee drinking can lead to adrenal fatigue, which means the more you drink, the more tired you become. So, people get put in a cycle to where they are tired, then they drink more coffee, but that inevitably makes the body feel more exhausted. It is very similar to sugar intake. We are ultimately exhausting our adrenal glands which is the main concern of excessive intake. One or two cups a day is OK, as the current caffeine recommendation is about two to four 8-ounce cups a day. If we exceed that amount, it can have adverse effects.

There’s a large difference in how we metabolically process caffeine, which is genetic. That means the effects of coffee on me would be horrible due to my metabolism. I can’t have a cup at all. But I have friends who have four cups a day and they sleep like babies, because they metabolize caffeine faster. It really depends on the individual.

For avid coffee drinkers who are taking in too much caffeine, what are the benefits of switching to decaf?
SM: You’ll get a better nights rest, which is honestly huge. Sleep is tied to everything from brain health to obesity to better cardiac markers, so it is essential to get enough. In our society that really struggles to moderate stress, you really have to consider what you are drinking as your caffeinated source. Because coffee compared to green tea is different. Green tea kind of sparkles and shines in comparison.

MH: The key is to understand that if you are feeling irritable and don’t sleep well consistently, taking coffee out will make those feelings go away. 

What are your suggestions for switching to decaf in the most effective way?
SM: First of all, when I tell people they need to let go of caffeine for a month, they act like I’m telling them to kill their mother, so it’s definitely challenging. It isn’t an acute medical problem, but rather necessary. I usually start out with a three-to-one ratio for the first five to seven days and then we switch to half, and then half that, and then keep going until it’s zero. You’re not only decaffeinating, but you’re also reprogramming your taste buds so it takes a little time and a lot of effort. 

MH: You want to do it slowly, especially if you’re used to drinking four cups a day. Start minimizing your intake and then eventually switch to something like green tea that also has benefits, like high antioxidants. Side effects of weaning off can be drowsiness, headaches and fatigue, which are things to prepare for. Once you do switch to decaf coffee, I would recommend going for an organic brand. Some of the cheapest decaf coffees use chemical solvents, so to be on the safe side, I would invest in better, more organic brands. 

If coffee is something you go to because you are tired, I would definitely look at your sleeping habits, dietary habits and maybe adding supplementation to ensure your nutrition is covered. We often turn to coffee often because our lifestyles aren’t balanced the way we should be, so in that case you can make other lifestyle changes such as adding exercise, yoga, meditation or just a few more hours of sleep, which will make you feel like you don’t need the coffee.

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