Over the Limit?
Americans young and old crave high-octane fuel, and doctors are jittery
Sleeplessness, not surprisingly, is a notorious side effect of caffeine. In recent years, as the number of people taking prescription sleeping pills has soared, more than a few doctors have wondered if people should reconsider their use of caffeine before downing an Ambien or Lunesta. According to Medco Health Solutions of Franklin Lakes, N.J., use of such medications by adults ages 20 to 44 increased 114 percent from 2000 to 2005.
In kids, lack of sleep is both a worrisome cause and effect of the caffeine craze. Wilkie Wilson, a professor of pharmacology at Duke University Medical Center and coauthor of Buzzed, a guide to commonly used drugs, says he's stunned by how little sleep kids get these days. Teenagers, he says, need at least nine hours of sleep a night; grade schoolers, 10 to 12 hours. Very few get close to that much-either, as in Linleigh Hawk's case, because they're actively fighting sleep, or because they're so jazzed from caffeine that they can't settle down at bedtime. The downside: "I'm exhausted. I can't remember simple things," Hawk says. But she gets the work done.
Indeed, lack of sleep interferes with concentration, says William Kohler, medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute in Spring Hill. It also can make kids fidgety. Since inattention and restlessness are signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as well, sleep researchers increasingly believe that some kids diagnosed with ADHD are actually sleep deprived.
The caffeine itself makes kids fidgety, too, of course. Just ask Maya Thompson, a Sacramento, Calif., mother. "It's like two totally different extremes," she says of how much more aggressive her son Jordan, 12, becomes with even a sip of a caffeinated drink. Jordan, for his part, says that lots of kids in his sixth-grade class pull Monster or Rock Star energy drinks out of their backpacks and drink them before PE class. "Oh my gosh!" says Maya, 30. "I'm shocked by that-that is crazy!"
The young adult crowd who favor caffeine with their alcohol appear to be putting themselves at some risk, too. The stimulant does mitigate the effects of alcohol by improving response time, according to Mark Fillmore, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky who has been testing the combination on student volunteers. But it fails to reduce the number of errors that a person under the influence makes. "Caffeine seems to restore the speed of your behavior but not the accuracy," Fillmore says.
Until the advent of caffeine pills and highly caffeinated energy drinks, caffeine overdoses were exceedingly rare, because people became anxious, shaky, and nauseated before they could imbibe enough. Now, people are sometimes shocked to find out how few servings equal too much. "I'm a strong, 47-year-old man, and I tell you what, that stuff put me on my knees," says Scott Silliman, a construction worker from Citrus Heights, Calif., who recently grabbed two cans of Redline RTD energy drink at 7-Eleven when he picked up lunch for the crew.
Silliman pounded down the drinks, then ate a burrito. Twenty minutes later, "I was sweating, I was shaking, I was freezing cold. I never felt anything like that in my life." Silliman thought he was having a heart attack. Actually, he had drunk 500 mg of caffeine in a few minutes, the equivalent of five cups of coffee. "The government should put some kind of regulations on this, or at least warning labels."