Thanks to our evolving coffee culture, it’s hard not to be tempted to pop into one of the high street chains for a quick cappuccino or café latte to perk us up first thing in the morning.
We drink approximately 70 million cups of coffee per day in the UK – and caffeine also naturally occurs in tea and chocolate.
But is our love of caffeine doing us more harm than good?
What’s in your cup?
A natural stimulant, caffeine can be found in more than 50 plant species, and typically, a cup of black coffee contains 85mg caffeine.
According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), 400mg of caffeine can be enjoyed per day as part of a healthy balanced diet and an active lifestyle.
Everything in moderation
“Coffee is enjoyed by millions of people globally and its health effects have been extensively researched,” says Elke Gerherd-Rieben of the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee.
“Moderate consumption of caffeinated coffee has been associated with a range of desirable physiological effects, including alertness and intellectual and physical endurance performance. Lifelong caffeine consumption may also decrease the risk of pathological conditions such as age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.”
In fact, Gerherd-Rieben believes the benefits of drinking ordinary coffee outweigh the drawbacks, such as irregular sleep patterns or dehydration: “Drinking decaffeinated coffee is largely a matter of preference and choice. Individual reactions to caffeine are more marked in some people than in others, depending on genetics.”
“Drinking more coffee than an individual is used to may affect sleep patterns or lead to hyperactivity, but these effects are usually short-lived once they return to their regular pattern of consumption. Caffeine intake in moderation does not cause any problems for the majority of people.”
A natural high
“Studies have consistently failed to show that caffeine causes dehydration in moderate amounts, but it’s best avoided if it’s making you feel more stressed,” says Charlotte Watts, nutritionist and author of The De-Stress Effect.
“For some of us, though, high-quality coffee or tea can provide a healthy lift if kept to two cups maximum a day – for example one after breakfast and/or lunch.
“If you’re having a shop-bought coffee, ask for a single shot, so as not to over-stimulate your system. If you’re used to having a cup of coffee or tea before breakfast, save this until you have food in your stomach. That can temper the adrenaline response to caffeine and make later crashes less likely.”
As with most drugs, physical dependency on caffeine comes from the dopamine ‘reward high’ it produces. Withdrawal can lead to symptoms like headaches, fatigue, moodiness and constipation. These generally occur after 12 hours without caffeine, peak after 24–48 hours, and last for up to a week.
“The stimulants theobromine and theophylline are still present in decaffeinated drinks, so they will create some stimulation. It may be better to just go with a few cups of the real deal, so you know where you are.”
“For some, though, this small lift is enough alongside the taste,” she adds. “Choose good-quality water-filtered decaf if going down this route – but it’s better to stick to green tea or herbal teas with the odd full-caf, rather than drink gallons of decaf coffee. Tea and coffee can be sprayed with huge amounts of chemicals, so choose organic.”