Originally Published: March 8, 2008 8:32 p.m.
For many people, each day does not begin until they have some caffeine in their system.
March is Caffeine Awareness Month, when many health experts take a second look at the advantages and drawbacks of America's stimulant of choice. Chad Hetherwick, registered dietician with Yavapai Regional Medical Center, shared his own views on the widespread eye-opener.
"Caffeine is a naturally-occurring chemical that has stimulating effects on the body; we all know that," Hetherwick said. "The biggest thing I think of is coffee, and that stimulating fix you get from it. It makes us feel more alert. It's part of our daily routine, our process of waking up."
Hetherwick said that it takes some time before the caffeine actually affects the body and that the initial rush of energy with coffee is largely psychological - a mental association with the energy coffee brings.
"A big benefit is the enjoyment people get out of it, whether or not it's psychological," Hetherwick said. "There are also some real drawbacks, however. Caffeine can be genuinely 'addictive.' There are physical withdrawal symptoms for some people when they don't get it. We should just be aware of how dependent we are on it."
Hetherwick noted a big difference between having a cup of coffee to start the day, and "constantly" drinking coffee throughout the day.
"Two or three cups isn't such a big deal," Hetherwick said. "But if you're drinking coffee all day long, you're probably not drinking water, juice, milk; things you need for health reasons. Also, coffee is a diuretic - if you're drinking coffee, you should try to drink more water to compensate for the fluid your body is losing."
Because people who drink a great deal of coffee tend to neglect other forms of nutrition, Hetherwick said, studies have shown that some heavy coffee drinkers have a low bone mineral density. He said the key is to find balance by drinking plenty of water to offset coffee's dehydrating effects and keeping up with daily requirements for vitamins and minerals, with vitamin supplements if necessary.
"An excess of caffeine can have some bad side effects, and negate the whole point of coffee as a picker-upper," Hetherwick said. "Too much can lead to headaches, stomach irritation, and in some cases, insomnia. Some say it increases your metabolism, that sort of thing, but the main thing to keep in mind is balance and moderation."
To Hetherwick, any research that demonizes or praises caffeine, or any other substance, as having previously unknown side effects, often is questionable.
"The way the media works is, it latches onto each new study to be the story of the week, and doesn't take the actual research into account," Hetherwick said. "One week caffeine is good for you; the next, it's terrible. Taking 'flavor of the week' research like that to heart can be a bad idea. Stick with what's been proven."
For those who must have caffeine to function, Hetherwick said that plain, black coffee actually is one of the healthier options.
"With soda there's the problem of all the extra calories, the same with many blended coffee drinks," Hetherwick said. "In the end, plain coffee or tea, with maybe a small amount of cream or sugar, is the best way to go. Energy drinks are becoming popular, and for those, I'd offer the same concerns about moderation as with coffee. Also, they tend to have more calories, so again, it's not something that's a huge health concern, just be reasonable about it."
In the end, Hetherwick said, coffee, and many other things, can be a part of a reasonable diet or lifestyle as long as people take care to achieve balance, avoid excess and maintain proper exercise and sleep routines.
More information is available on the American Dietetic Association website at www.eatright.org and the National Institutes of Health website at www.nih.gov.
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