Over the Limit?
Americans young and old crave high-octane fuel, and doctors are jittery
Since scientists have never studied how caffeine affects growing bodies and brains, children who go through the day guzzling soda after iced tea after energy drink are serving as tiny guinea pigs. "This is something that nobody is looking at carefully," says Nora Volkow, a psychiatrist who directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "We really have no idea how it affects development long term."
The appeal to kids of high-octane energy drinks has some officials concerned enough to act. Just last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced it had sent a warning letter to the manufacturer of Cocaine Energy Drink, Redux Beverages LLC of Las Vegas, for marketing the beverage "as an alternative to an illicit street drug." Until last week, the manufacturer's website boasted "Cocaine-instant rush." Hyping the performance enhancements caffeine offers at the time you're introducing the drug to children "is a terrible message. It has implications for drug use in the future," says Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center who has studied caffeine's effects for more than 30 years.
And last month, Doherty High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., banned a drink called Spike Shooter. Two students were taken to the hospital complaining of nausea, vomiting, and heart palpitations after drinking an 8-ounce can, which packs 300 mg of caffeine-the same as almost four Red Bulls.
For adults, and in reasonable doses-the equivalent of three 8-ounce cups of coffee, six Excedrin Migraine, or a half-dozen 12-ounce colas a day-caffeine has much to recommend it. As the world's most popular habit-forming drug, it fights fatigue, brightens mood, and eases pain while it's forestalling sleep. Test subjects dosed with the amount found in a cup of coffee come out ahead on problem-solving tasks. And by triggering the release of adrenaline to help muscles work harder and longer, caffeine so clearly enhances athletic performance that until 2004 it was considered a controlled substance by the International Olympic Committee. Supercaffeinated energy drinks like Redline RTD are marketed to bodybuilders.
Elixir of life. The latest findings on coffee suggest that it even staves off disease. Caffeine reduces the risk of Parkinson's disease, for example, by blocking receptors for adenosine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motor function. It is now being tested as a Parkinson's treatment. Caffeine also heads off migraines by contracting blood vessels in the brain.
And probably because coffee, like blueberries and broccoli, contains potent antioxidants, it appears to reduce the risk of colon cancer, gallstones, and liver cancer, among other illnesses. In 2005, Harvard researchers found that drinking six cups of coffee or more daily cut the risk of getting type 2 diabetes by half in men and 30 percent in women. One study of 80,000 women showed that those who drank more than two or three cups of coffee daily reduced their risk of suicide over 10 years by a third.
Alas, that glorious rush of energy isn't entirely benign. Numerous studies have found no link between caffeine and cardiovascular disease. But it can cause anxiety, jitters, and heart palpitations, particularly in people who are sensitive to it. It also can cause stomach pain and gastrointestinal reflux, may make it harder for a woman to get pregnant, and may increase the risk of miscarriage or a low-birth-weight baby. Doctors advise pregnant women to give up caffeine, or keep consumption down to a cup or two of coffee daily.