The key to wellbeing and leading a healthy lifestyle is balance, well at least it’s certainly a big part. Everything in moderation, and the same goes for our beloved caffeine! But many of us have grown so accustomed to the taste that we're drinking really rather a lot of coffee or tea. While it has it’s benefits - feeling alert and a bit more energetic, or just being able to talk to people in the morning without ripping their heads off - it might also be contributing to sensations that can leave us feeling a little frazzled - like a racing heart, difficulty concentrating or even that queasy anxious feeling. So much coffee is too much coffee? Keep reading to find out more.
Ah caffeine, love it, hate it, crave it? Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant from the alkaloid family, commonly found in coffee, tea leaves, energy drinks, some medications and even cocoa beans. Many of us feel we need the stuff to help us wake up in a morning, to be a pleasant person, and to get through the day. And at low doses, it can do wonders for feeling more alert and energetic. But at higher doses, it has the potential to cause feelings of anxiety or irritability, and make it difficult to switch off or fall asleep.
With a hand vs hand situation, which way does the scale tip? Is caffeine really bad for us, will it damage our health, and is it actually preventing us getting through the day in a healthy way? Well, let’s take a closer look.
The pros and cons of caffeine consumption
So at low doses caffeine is pretty handy really, and there’s no reason to abolish it from our drinks menu or morning routine. But of course considering when we drink it might be helpful. According to research, caffeine takes about an hour to kick in and do the good stuff we want it to do, and for some it stays at this level for several hours . But even six hours after we’ve consumed the tasty nectar, it’s still present in our bodies - so if you’re chugging latte’s at 4pm, and hoping to drift off by 10pm you’ll still have around half the caffeine in your body, it’s no wonder many of us lie awake tossing and turning. It can actually take up to 10 hours for caffeine to clear out of our systems, something to think about when you next reach for a brew or joe in the afternoon.
Some studies suggest that for healthy adults, tea and coffee in moderate amounts won’t damage our health (win). Other studies suggest that 3-4 cups of coffee are safe and have potential benefits for those with heart disease and diabetes (double win). And there’s even a suggestion that one or two cups of joe a day can help boost memory function both in young and older adults - triple win!
However, many of us develop a tolerance for caffeine meaning we become accustomed to having it regularly and almost become immune to the effects, unless we up the intake. Over time, we can find we’re steadily increasing caffeine consumption just to meet the desired effects of alertness and ability to concentrate. And you know what’s coming…
Building our tolerance (even accidentally) can lead to too much caffeine for us, which weakens the adrenal glands (that play a role in our stress response and fight, flight or freeze mode). It can also deplete nutrients in the body and can interfere with hormone balance.
In some circumstances, our bodies can even develop a dependence on caffeine, which can lead to symptoms like headaches and indigestion if we don’t get our fix. Luckily, it’s not quite an addiction (although some claim caffeine to be an addictive substance), it does slightly raise dopamine levels so we might chase that hit and therefore the caffeinated drinks.
Symptoms of too much caffeine
We’ll all have different needs, preferances and tolerances for caffeine, some of us might feel we can’t go without at least 4 cups of coffee, others might drink tea throughout the day like the kettles going to be removed from the house, others won’t touch the stuff. But how do we know how much is the right amount for us?
The symptoms we might experience when we’ve had too much caffeine include:
Headache, nervousness, dizziness.
Having “the jitters” or feeling shaky.
Insomnia or sleep that is “on and off” throughout the night.
Racing heart or abnormal heartbeat.
Increase in blood pressure.
Keep an eye on how you’re feeling throughout the day and when you’ve consumed caffeine to help you spot these symptoms in yourself. If you notice these regularly, it’s more likely you’re over-indulging on the coffee or tea and could benefit from cutting back. If you’re consuming an amount that might raise eyebrows for some, but feeling hunky dory, you’re probably ok. For those who struggle with anxiety, caffeine can worsen or emulate symptoms which can leave us feeling quite fragile, and cutting back could help you manage your anxiety a little better (alongside any other forms of support that work for you).
There’s also several conditions that it might be best to avoid caffeine, but talk to your GP or healthcare provider for individualised suggestions. These might include; being pregnant or breastfeeding, suffering from migraines or other chronic illnesses, those with digestive issues or conditions, those with sleep disorders, heart conditions, or high blood pressure.
The bottom line
So is there such a thing as too much coffee? Yes, unfortunately there is. But it’s different for everyone and paying attention to consumption and sensations will help us to recognise when we’ve had our personal allowance.
Should we cut it out altogether? Not necessarily, if you cope with caffeine well, it helps boost your energy and focus and the symptoms are nonexistent (or completely bearable) there’s no need to entirely avoid it. For others, it might be necessary, but again speak to your GP for guidance.
Should we be more conscious of consumption? Probably. Like with anything, moderation is key. Experiment with cutting back and see how it affects you. Try consuming caffeine on a full stomach, using whole milk (or alternatives), after a glass of water if you drink it first thing (it can increase cortisol levels initially but see a bigger drop later on meaning we often seek more), or from different sources if you feel its effects aren’t always helpful.
The very bottom line: we don’t need to fear caffeine, avoid coffee or stop drinking tea. It’s delicious! And sometimes we need that helping hand to get out of bed, get through the working day, or parent without locking ourselves in the bathroom for 5 minutes peace. On days where you feel you need it, have it without guilt or fear of the effects it can have on our health. Just try not to fall into a routine of excessive caffeine on a daily basis.