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Caffeine Cravings: What to Choose, What to Avoid

Caffeine will be your hero many times throughout your college life, but beware--it has a dark side.

You’re staring down at your laptop sometime around 2:00 am, trying to string words together for a paper. Sleepiness clings to your eyelids, but you must press on to meet that 8:00 am deadline. You just need something to give you the energy you need to not pass out and drool all over your keyboard...

As a college student, you’ll find yourself in this situation or one like it soon enough. Of course, caffeine will be your hero many times throughout your college life; after all, it comes in many different forms, ranging from drinks to snacks to medication, and can be obtained at practically any convenience store.

What many don’t know, however, is that caffeine has a bit of a dark side.

Caffeine addiction: what’s the deal?

We live in a caffeine-centric culture: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that a whopping 90% of Americans consume caffeine daily. Lately, caffeine dependence is rising in high school and college student bodies. There’s a fine line between caffeine dependence and caffeine addiction, though.

Signs of caffeine addiction vary, but the best way to tell if you are a caffeine addict is to go a day or so without it. According to Caffeine Insanity, if you experience headaches, upset stomach, and irritability, you are experiencing caffeine withdrawal, a prime sign of caffeine addiction.

How caffeine works

Here’s a quick science lesson for you: caffeine acts as a stimulant, which is “any drug that excites any bodily function, but more specifically those that stimulate the brain and central nervous system,” as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica.

Mental Floss describes the chemical effects of caffeine on the brain and nervous system in its article, “How Does Caffeine Work?” As your nerve cells send signals to the rest of your body, a neurochemical, adenosine, accumulates inside of you. As adenosine passes through your nervous system’s receptors, it makes you feel tired.

This is where caffeine comes in: caffeine molecules are the same size and shape as adenosine, so it blocks some of the receptors to which adenosine would normally attach. Your nervous system cannot tell the difference between the two!

Because adenosine is blocked, other chemicals, such as dopamine, which induces feelings of energy, can proliferate in your body. This causes you to feel alert and energetic!

Caffeine is at its strongest 30–60 minutes after you consume it, says Sleep Education. After this time frame, though, you stop feeling the energy-inducing effects (womp womp). It circulates throughout your bloodstream as your body works to eliminate it, but this process will take eight to 14 hours, depending on the amount consumed.

The right amount, the right outcome

Although caffeine can keep you awake and increase your focus, it can also cause negative health effects when abused. Numerous government and medical studies show the effects of caffeine on its users. Specifically, too much caffeine can make you feel anxious and restless. Your muscles will twitch, your hands will shake, and your heart will race. But how much is too much?

The FDA suggests that adults should be consuming only 200 to 300 mg of caffeine per day. That’s equal to about two cups of coffee or four servings of soda. Consuming the recommended amount (or less) should prevent the negative side effects of caffeine consumption and prevent caffeine overdose, which can be fatal in extreme cases.

So many choices

With all the different brands of energy drinks, coffee, and soda, it can be difficult to choose the kind that is right for you. How do you get the most out of your daily caffeine intake? Here’s a list of sources of caffeine to help you decide what works for you, in order of milligrams of caffeine found per serving.

  • Study Buddy. Although these pills are slightly controversial, you’ll still find them in university markets and bookstores. According to Caffeine Informer, each capsule (they usually come in a two-pack) contains 40mg of caffeine. By taking both pills, you’re consuming more caffeine than what most sodas offer.
  • Starbucks Refreshers. These fruit-flavored concoctions can be found in many college markets. With just a hint of caffeine—45–55mg depending on the flavor, according to Thrillist—it will give you enough of a boost to make you feel, well, refreshed.
  • Mountain Dew. Many people connect this soda with caffeine, but it’s actually not the most-caffeinated soda (it is one of the highest calorie drinks, though). However, you still get plenty of bang for your buck: this soda boasts 54mg of caffeine per 12-ounce bottle and 55mg for its diet counterpart. That’ll help you get through your course work!
  • Pepsi Max. This diet soda, although calorie free, contains 69mg of caffeine. It is the most caffeinated soda on the market, ranking above Sunkist, Sundrop, Mountain Dew, and Mello Yello!
  • Rockstar. According to its official site, Rockstar energy boasts over 20 flavors and is available around the world. It comes packaged in a 16-ounce container, and it is 140 calories per serving. With many energy drinks, though, you will find that caffeine content is not labeled along with other nutritional information. That’s why many outside sources, such as Consumer Reports, have been investigating caffeine content in energy beverages. According to their findings, you get about 80 mg of caffeine per serving.
  • Red Bull. At 110 calories and 83mg of caffeine, Red Bull has been known to “give you wings.”  It’s slightly larger and slightly pricier than your other energy drink brands too.
  • Monster. Monster comes in multiple types of energy drink; some are fused with coffee, tea, or lemonade. Consumer Reports found that each 8-ounce container contains roughly 92mg of caffeine. Keep in mind that this is nearly half the FDA recommended amount.
  • Starbucks Caramel Macchiato. In Thrillist’s caffeine ranking of Starbucks beverages, it stated that an iced or hot caramel macchiato contained 115mg of caffeine.
  • 5-Hour Energy. According to studies by Consumer Reports, this two-ounce energy shot contains 215 mg of caffeine. That’s over the FDA recommended amount, in only two ounces. If you need a pick-me-up, these will definitely open your eyes—but whether or not you should drink one is another story.

Some nights you’ll need it more than others, and caffeine can definitely help you stay focused and attentive. Just remember to be careful about how much you’re getting a day. Read labels, do research, and keep track of your intake.

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