Caffeine 3/26/23

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

Some years ago, when I was teaching, one of my students was from South Africa.  Of course, he was young, naïve and eager to fit in with his new American “friends”.  The problem with young men (and some never grow out of it) is that they’re more focused on “having fun” than the well-being of others, and will all-too often risk the well-being of others for pranks that are “just for fun”.

Before going on, I should mention that this young student recovered and is just fine.  It turned out to be little more than a scare, but it could have been far more severe or even lethal.

See, we have a lot of drugs in our society that we just don’t think about.  Some are obvious, like illicit drugs including those that are illegal for no reason that makes sense to me such as marijuana all the way up to far more dangerous drugs like meth.  Some are prescription drugs that are getting into our water supplies and in the hands of those for whom they were not prescribed at all.  Some are over the counter like aspirin and the acid control medication that I take myself.  Some we don’t even think of as drugs anymore like alcohol, and the subject of this story, namely caffeine. 

Yes, caffeine is actually a drug.  It’s so prevalent in our society that, as Americans, we have built up a kind of immunity to it, or at least a tolerance.  My friends often post on their social media pages memes about coffee and the desperate need for it.  I myself cannot start my day without my own version of “caffeine”, a diet soda.  Caffeine is an organic chemical and is actually a beautiful white crystalline substance.  You could actually put it in a shaker and have it next to your salt and pepper on the table if you wanted. 

Curiously, only women can taste caffeine.  Manufacturers of soda and other products that claim caffeine is added as flavoring are only targeting about half of the population if the claim is true.  I cannot tell you what caffeine tastes like because I’m a man, but you can do the experiment.  The experiment used two name-brand orange sodas, one caffeinated and the other not.  The gave the subjects both drinks to try, and an unknown third asking them to identify which it was.  Only women could consistently guess correctly. 

Caffeine works on the central nervous system.  The FDA claims that 400 mg (a little less than half a gram) is considered to be the maximum “safe” level.  Americans, however, have had caffeine in our bodies very early in life, so it takes more and more caffeine for us to notice it.  In South Africa, however, their lifestyle is to avoid all stimulants, including caffeine, altogether.

If you haven’t figured out the direction this post is heading, let me spell it out to you.  This South African, who has never experience caffeine (including in vivo as a developing fetus) was out with his “friends”.  They thought it would be funny to give him his first experience with caffeine.  They convinced him to “slam” not one, not two, but three “energy” drinks famous for its exceptionally high caffeine level.

And, yes, I was woken from my sleep in the middle of the night by a panicked call from the student who explained what had happened, and was worried because he could feel his heart beating in his chest.  His “friends” must have been beside themselves with laughter, but is such a trick really so funny? 

Proverbial “practical jokes” have usually eluded me.  Many of them are just stupid and dangerous.  Yes, this student could have died from heart failure as his central nervous system was suddenly under attack by an unfamiliar chemical introduced into his system.

Caffeine, in typical quantities, are fine.  Coffee, tea, and most sodas are not a problem if taken in moderation.  Caffeinated energy drinks and pills, on the other hand, can be very dangerous even if we’re accustomed to caffeine in our system.  Caffeine is also sometimes, as I understand it, the active ingredient in some diet pills as well, and it shows up in places that it might not be expected, like aspirin and chocolate.  No, I’m not suggesting that it should be banned or anything so dramatic, but as responsible consumers we need to be aware of the deleterious effects of dietary chemicals such as this, and the safe limits for consumption.  And, no, it’s not funny to give caffeine as a joke to somebody who is not used to it such as infants or people from other cultures. Be careful out there. 


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