Too much caffeine?
Published: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 12:50 a.m.
The 14-year-old boy was just trying to rev up with energy drinks and caffeine pills he bought over the Internet so he could stay up all night playing video games. Instead, he ended up in a hospital intensive care unit with a severe caffeine overdose.
So how much is too much?
Experts say that for most people anything above 250 milligrams of caffeine a day, about three cups of strong coffee, will develop into an addiction. That means if you don't get that much, you'll probably feel tired and cranky and get a headache.
Urban legend? Not hardly. While that boy's experience is an extreme example of what can happen in our 24/7, go-go-go, caffeine-fueled lives, cases like his are showing up with increasing frequency at hospitals and in frightened calls to poison hotlines.
"We are starting to see cases where people are being admitted with caffeine toxicity," said Dr. Michel Cramer-Bornemann, co-director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, who described the case of the 14-year-old.
Caffeine is the most powerful legal stimulant available without a prescription, and in the past decade it has become the drug of choice of millions. It is a ubiquitous ingredient in dozens of soft drinks, and has its own beverage category - energy drinks, an industry valued at $3.7 billion and growing.
And in a trend that has some health experts worried, energy drinks, especially Red Bull, are now one of the most popular mixers with alcohol. It's a party animal's dream combination, it makes you both drunk and wired - until you crash.
As drugs go, caffeine is pretty benign when taken in moderation. Coffee, after all, has been with us for centuries and is still one of the most concentrated sources of caffeine. Even soft drinks such as Mountain Dew and some of the more popular energy drinks such as Red Bull have less caffeine than a large cup of coffee. A little dependence is okay, maybe even vital, for early commutes and 10-hour workdays.
- It increases alertness, reduces tiredness, and increases competitiveness and aggressiveness. "You get wired," said Dr. Dan Halvorsen, an expert in exercise medicine at Children's Hospitals and Clinics.
That's why energy drinks have names like Amp, rip it, No Fear and Rock Star. And that's also why they are often a common sight on the sidelines of football and soccer games.
Now, he only drinks the equivalent of three to four cups of coffee a day because he built up such a tolerance to caffeine that he couldn't feel its effects.f-z
Kirk Hughes, a poison specialist with the Minnesota Regional Poison Control Center, said that last year there were about 150 calls to the hotline concerning caffeine abuse, and about half of those were referred to a hospital.
Most of those calls involved caffeine pills, but sometimes they involved a combination of pills, energy drinks and other drugs, including alcohol. Whether coffee or NoDoz, it's the most widely abused drug out there," he said. Experts say that medical problems related to caffeine may be far more common than is known because doctors rarely ask about caffeine consumption.
"Everyone uses it so much (that) we don't bother to test for it," said Miner. "Everyone has it in their system."
Cramer-Bornemann, the sleep expert, said it's no coincidence that insomnia is by far the most common sleep disorder in a country drowning in caffeine. He pointed out that in most European countries only adults 18 years and older can legally buy energy drinks because the long-term effects of caffeine on teenagers - the target market for energy drinks in this country - is unknown.
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