The Pitt Prescription: Safe caffeine use during finals season

The Pitt Prescription is a bi-weekly blog where student pharmacist and Senior Staff Writer Elizabeth Donnelly provides tips on how to stay healthy in college.

I am stressed, and I think there are many college students who relate to that sentiment right now. It is finally December, which means we are officially in the home stretch of the semester. With only one week to go until finals, many students (myself included) are frantically preparing for several exams or projects.

Not only am I stressed, but I am tired. Actually, make that exhausted. Yes, I realize that my last edition spoke about the importance of sleep, but during finals season, getting enough sleep feels almost impossible. Creating a consistent schedule, staying on top of your work and budgeting your time effectively are the best methods to getting enough sleep in order to function properly in your daily life.

When there is a shortage of time and getting seven to eight hours of sleep is not a viable option, many college students turn to caffeine to prepare for the day ahead. Caffeine is not a substitute for sleep — it is a stimulant that can aid in alertness and wakefulness, but is not interchangeable with a full night’s sleep. Caffeine is available in many different forms such as beverages (tea, coffee, cola products, energy drinks), foods (chocolate products) and medications (Excedrin, Anacin, Midol Complete, NoDoz and some vitamins such as One A Day Energy).

As with any drug, caffeine should be used in moderation, as overuse can lead to dependency. Many people do not realize this, though, because they don’t think caffeine could have as significant of an effect as other commonly known legal drugs like alcohol. According to the FDA, constant caffeine consumers can experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches, anxiety and nervousness. These symptoms, while unpleasant, are not typically dangerous or fatal, like with other drugs (opioids, for example).

So what is considered a healthy amount of caffeine to consume? Well, the general rule set forth by the FDA is about 400 mg of caffeine per day for healthy adults. It is said that 400 mg is equal to four cups of coffee, however, this is a very general statement. The amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee differs heavily based on the type of bean, roasting style and type of coffee. For example, a 16 oz blonde roast coffee at Starbucks contains 360 mg of caffeine whereas a 16 oz Starbucks dark roast coffee contains 260 mg of caffeine.

Caffeine tolerance (sensitivity to and metabolism of caffeine) also differs from person to person, which further intensifies the variation in healthy daily caffeine intake. This is why it is important to consume in moderation and always look at the caffeine content of all the products you use. Overconsumption can lead to adverse effects like jitters, anxiety, accelerated heart rate, nausea, headaches and insomnia.

Something to note is that there are products other than beverages that contain caffeine. Anything containing chocolate will have some caffeine in it. While it is not as significant an amount as in coffee, it is still present, so if it is consumed in combination with other caffeinated beverages, foods or medications, it will increase daily intake.

The same goes for medications. There are many medications containing caffeine ranging from menstrual relief products to vitamins. Migraine medications like Excedrin (130 mg caffeine per dose) and pain relievers like Anacin (64 mg caffeine per dose) also contain caffeine, so they should also be accounted for in daily intake, something many people may not realize. This is why reading the ingredients on all products you use is vital — you don’t want to accidentally overconsume.

The FDA warns of the dangers of too much caffeine, saying toxic effects like seizures can be the result of quickly consuming excessive amounts (about 1,200 mg). Combining caffeinated products can lead to this toxicity — it takes only three Starbucks venti blonde roasts to get above this level, not to mention any other dietary or medicinal caffeine taken in throughout the day.

Something I see often around campus, whether it be in class, at the library or on the morning shuttle, is students drinking energy drinks. Concerning caffeine, energy drinks are on a whole different level. These beverages are crafted specifically to provide high levels of caffeine for a boost of energy. There are many issues with them. Because they are not FDA-regulated, many manufacturers can get away with promoting and selling unhealthy concoctions of caffeine, vitamins and additives.

In addition, most energy drinks are characterized as “dietary supplements” so they can avoid the limit of 71 mg caffeine per 12 ounces the FDA has set for soda. Some energy drinks do not disclose the caffeine content on the label and contain additives such as guarana, a plant whose seeds contain up to four times the amount of caffeine as coffee beans, which could be a hidden source of additional caffeine.

5-Hour Energy is an example of this — a 1.9 oz shot of it contains well over the daily limit of niacin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. It also contains an “energy blend” of taurine, glucuronic acid, malic acid, N-acetyl L-tyrosine, L-phenylalanine, caffeine and citicoline. The label states that the blend contains 200 mg of caffeine, but these other ingredients also are natural sources of caffeine, so Consumer Reports found it really has about 215 mg of caffeine in each shot.

The small size and low price of 5-Hour Energy shots entice many people — especially students — to buy multiple at a time. Just two of these shots (less than 4 oz total) puts you over the healthy daily limit for caffeine, which is not something one may expect from something so small. Not to mention the additives in energy drinks (like ginseng, taurine and guarana) have no real proven health benefits and have not been studied in depth to see what their lasting effects are over time. Most energy drinks also have a very high sugar content, which is not only unhealthy, but can lead to a sugar crash after consumption. Finally, caffeine is a mild diuretic so use of these products can lead to dehydration.

Another important thing to note is that caffeine should never be used in conjunction with alcohol. As caffeine is a stimulant and alcohol is a depressant, they have contradictory effects that can have negative health impacts. According to the CDC, mixing alcohol with caffeine can mask the effects of the alcohol, making the person feel less impaired than they truly are. This is one of the major factors that leads to alcohol-attributed accidents and injuries like drunk driving or alcohol poisoning.

With all the risks of caffeine consumption aside, moderate caffeine intake is fine for healthy adults. When choosing a product, make sure to read the label and check for the serving size and caffeine content so that you do not exceed the limit of 400 mg per day. Remember to factor in any medications or foods with added caffeine when looking at your daily total. Brewed coffees and teas tend to have higher levels without any of the questionable additives, so they are typically safer to consume than energy drinks or supplements.

The most important thing to note is that caffeine can be used to enhance alertness and stimulate wakefulness, but it should not be used as a substitute for sleep on a continuous basis. If you have any questions regarding how caffeine use may be affecting your health, you can ask your doctor or local pharmacist for advice.