It gives you a perfectly legal energy burst, mental lift, and metabolism boost. Doctors allow and even encourage it. Caffeine officially rocks. Just make sure its effects always take you to your happy place, and not over to the jittery, irritable dark side. By Jessica Girdwain
First, why caffeine is good for you
Forget the guilty rap; science is proving that caffeine has very real health benefits. In its natural form (meaning coffee and tea, not soda), caffeine is a stimulant that activates the areas of the brain responsible for alertness, cognitive-thinking skills, and even pleasure. Researchers believe it's the caffeine itself, along with the ample antioxidants in naturally caffeinated drinks, that makes them so good for us. A few of the perks:
1. A longer life: Women who drank anywhere from two to six cups of coffee a day had a 15 percent lower risk of dying during a 14-year study by the National Institutes of Health. What's more, caffeinated java can help slash your diabetes risk in half and reduce your odds of certain forms of breast cancer by 57 percent; researchers say coffee contains powerful compounds that may strengthen your body's defenses. And you'll keep your brain sharp, too: Drinking three to five cups daily may reduce your odds of developing dementia by 65 percent.
2. A mental-health boost: If you feel a little happier soon after that first sip, you're not imagining things. Caffeine triggers the release of dopamine, the "feel-good" chemical in your brain. One Harvard University study found that women who drink two to three cups of caffeinated coffee per day have a 15 percent lower risk of depression than non--coffee drinkers. (Four or more cups per day gives you a 20 percent lower risk, so refill with glee.)
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3. A smaller waistline: Caffeine has stimulating effects on the central nervous system, which means it could help rev your metabolism. No wonder habitual coffee drinkers gain fewer pounds over time, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Green tea has additional weight benefits: In addition to the dose of caffeine, you'll also get catechins--nutrients linked to helping your body burn fat, especially around your abs.
4. Easier workouts: The next time you exercise, try swapping your sports drink for a travel mug of coffee. Research has found that caffeine could help bring more power to your muscles by blocking the compound adenosine--the more adenosine in your muscles, the more fatigued they feel. That means you could have a more effective workout just by sipping a cup of java before you're ready to sweat.
What to do when caffeine stops working
It happens: Your crucial morning mug of coffee or afternoon Diet Coke suddenly does nada for you. Blame the mechanics of addiction, says Gary Wenk, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Ohio State University and the author of Your Brain on Food. Brain chemicals adjust to the levels of caffeine you down, increasing your tolerance. Use these expert tips to reboot your body and get your perk back.
1. Sip smarter. One reason caffeine loses its kick: People are using it haphazardly, says Frank Ritter, Ph.D., a professor at Pennsylvania State University. Ritter developed Caffeine Zone 2, an iTunes app that lets you know the perfect time to sip in order to maintain an ideal amount of caffeine in your bloodstream. For most adults, that can be anywhere from 200 to 400 mg of caffeine. Give the app a few stats (weight, coffee-drinking habits, bedtime), and it'll tell you when and how to re-caffeinate. After her first cup of coffee of the day, REDBOOK tester Lori Kennedy, 33, usually has her second cup (12 oz, 180 mg caffeine) around 2 p.m., but the app vetoed it if she planned to go to bed by 10 p.m. "So I tried inputting a cup of black tea (83 mg caffeine). Approved!"
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2. Down it faster. Your first cup of coffee of the day should be sipped quickly, to spike caffeine levels enough to wake you up, Ritter says. But how fast (or slow) you consume caffeine changes how it affects you, so drink at a leisurely pace if you tend to get the jitters.
3. Give yourself a break. Some experts suggest skipping all sources of caffeine for a week or two. "It's like pushing your body's 'reset' button," Wenk says. "Liver enzymes will return to normal and your brain will adjust, so when you start drinking caffeine again, you'll need less to get the jolt." If going cold turkey leads to headaches or irritability, scale back your dose slowly.
5 top caffeine questions, answered
Q: I drink diet cola, but what about the ingredients in it besides caffeine? Is it bad for me?
A: Diet cola may be calorie-free, but it's no health food. Most brands contain chemicals like phosphoric acid, an ingredient also used in fertilizer. (Craving it a little less now?) In addition, says registered dietitian Ilyse Schapiro, fake sugars like aspartame have been linked to weight gain.
Q: Heartburn is in full force. What can I do?
A: If acidic beverages like coffee trigger heartburn, the fix may be as simple as drinking smaller amounts or taking an acid-blocker like Pepcid before you sip. But, sad to say, if symptoms are severe, you should really cut out caffeine completely.
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Q: I love my extra-strong pour of coffee, but when I drink it, I feel impatient and even a little angry. Am I imagining things?
A: When certain stimulants, including caffeine, interact with your particular body chemistry, they can have a negative impact on brain function and mood, Wenk says. "For some people, this happens with chocolate. We call it chocolate anger." Why this reaction occurs is largely a mystery, but it may be hereditary. So if you're slightly hostile after consuming certain forms of caffeine, stick to the ones that keep you on an even keel.
Q: I often go for energy drinks like Red Bull instead of coffee. Should I break the habit?
A: Yes. "Avoid!" says Schapiro. Energy drinks can cause side effects like insomnia, elevated heart rate, and upset stomach. "And some contain ingredients that aren't regulated by the FDA, so we don't know how safe they are." Not to mention, the sugar!
Q: I caved and ordered a post-dinner espresso. What can I do to make sure I fall asleep?
A: Sadly, there's nothing you can do to speed the exit of caffeine from your body, says Hans Van Dongen, Ph.D., a sleep expert at Washington State University. The good news is that a shot of espresso has 25 to 50 percent less caffeine than a cup of regular coffee, most likely because of coffee's longer brew time, says Matt Lounsbury, director of operations at Stumptown Coffee.
How Much Caffeine is in That?
Experts say the average adult needs about 200 mg of caffeine for a full wake-you-up effect. That said, we all feel the buzz differently, thanks to our tolerance and genetics. So listen to your body, then pick your poison.
Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate Bar: 20 mg
Diet Coke (12 oz): 47 mg
Green tea (8 oz): 35 mg
Mountain Dew (12 oz): 54 mg
Black tea (8 oz): 55 mg
Espresso, single: 75 mg
Starbucks tall latte (12 oz): 75 mg
Red Bull (8.4 oz): 77 mg
Extra-strength Excedrin (2 tablets): 130 mg
McDonald's large coffee (16 oz): 133 mg
Dunkin' Donuts medium coffee (14 oz): 178 mg
Panera Bread regular coffee (16.8 oz): 189 mg
Starbucks grande Bold Pick of the Day (16 oz): 330 mg
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