The Caffeine Controversy: Is Coffee Healthy?

     Walking into a first period class, you are guaranteed to see a wide variety of Aroma Joes, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Starbucks coffee cups around the room. Depending on what you’ve read, the coffee drinkers in that classroom probably have stunted growth and are fueling their underlying issues with anxiety. Or maybe you think that iced latte is decreasing their risk of certain cancers. 

     The ongoing debate of whether coffee is healthy or not extends past your mom’s nagging to cut back on coffee and into the field of science. The effects of coffee have been super-studied by scientists and nutrition experts, who have debunked long-standing myths and gained new knowledge about it. As the most common source of caffeine for Americans, many students and teachers use their morning coffee as an energy boost or as a means to stay up late working on homework. It’s not uncommon to hear students claiming that they should drink less coffee, but is that really true?

     “The public sometimes thinks that coffee is bad, but research doesn’t really back that up. Most of the science out there shows that coffee consumption is actually helpful,” said Jesse Morrell, Nutrition Director at the University of New Hampshire. There are both benefits and drawbacks to caffeine consumption, but Morrell said that the positive effects of drinking coffee (in moderation) include mental and physical health improvements. 

     Jennifer Weeks, a teacher at ORHS, said that her morning cup of coffee allows her to comfortably wake up earlier and to feel mentally alert. This is one of the more common reasons that people choose to drink coffee. 

     Kimberly Wolph, a nurse at ORHS, said that these effects are from the caffeine in coffee. “Caffeine gives a person energy due to it being a stimulant and therefore increases brain activity as well as [releases] adrenaline within the body,” she said. This stimulation allows coffee drinkers to feel more awake throughout the day.

     Not only can drinking coffee improve your mental state, but it also claims to have many physical benefits as well. “Metabolically, you have better insulin resistance [and] it helps with liver function… It [also] reduces liver cancer rates,” said Morrell. According to the article “9 Reasons Why (The Right Amount of) Coffee Is Good for You” by Johns Hopkins Medicine, drinking coffee can also help to improve physical performance, decrease the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, and lower the risk of death by strokes, heart disease, and kidney disease.

     The article claimed that drinking coffee can protect consumers from developing Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Dementia, all neurodegenerative conditions that have no known cure. “We see people who are coffee drinkers living longer,” said Morrell. 

     It’s worth noting that there is an obvious bias for claiming that coffee is healthy since large coffee businesses benefit from positive reports on it. We should be skeptical of some of the studies on coffee that are released because of the influence that these companies may have on the research that is being done.

     Additionally, more coffee doesn’t necessarily mean more health benefits. In general, Morrell suggests that people, especially high schoolers, should have less than 400 mg of caffeine (about four 8oz cups of coffee) per day. Doesn’t sound too hard, right? Keep in mind that a Dunkin’ Donuts large iced coffee contains an estimated 396 mg of caffeine. A venti cold brew coffee from Starbucks has about 310 mg of caffeine.

     Just because 400 mg is the recommended caffeine limit for high school students, it doesn’t mean that it’s the perfect amount for you. “I have a really high caffeine tolerance, but there are times that, if I drink a lot in a really short period of time, I’ll feel jittery. Normally, I just focus a lot easier and I’m nowhere near as tired as I would be if I didn’t have a cup of coffee,” said Justin Partis (‘22). 

     Sofia Calzone (‘22) said that she has experienced similar effects from drinking a lot of coffee. “I’m probably the worst person to drink coffee because I already have a lot of energy. Sometimes I’m literally shaking in class,” she said. Wolph said that these uncomfortable physical feelings are due to the stimulating effects of caffeine. “Caffeine increases the activity within certain organs in the body. Too much caffeine (stimulant) can leave some people feeling nervous and jittery. They may also feel actual chest pain and an increase in heart rate,” she said. 

     With firsthand experience, Weeks agreed that drinking coffee has sometimes intensified her feelings of nervousness or anxiety. “[Coffee] definitely doesn’t help with anxiety and if you’re already stressed out about something, then it stimulates that even more,” she said. 

     In addition to getting “the jitters” and feeling more anxious, coffee can contribute to migraines for those who are prone to them. Lilly Henderson (‘22) said, “if I don’t have [coffee] for a few days then I get migraines and headaches.”

     Morrell provided her perspective on why this happens. “Consuming way too much caffeine or not enough could be a trigger for migraine-sufferers… when you really deviate, migraine-sufferers tend to have trouble,” she said. She emphasized the importance of consistency of coffee consumption if you are sensitive to migraines.

     One particularly creative rumor that makes some students believe that coffee is not a healthy choice relates to its effect on growth and development. “I’m sure it’s bad for me. My friends joke that it stunted my growth and that’s why I’m so short,” said Henderson. According to “Can Coffee Really Stunt Your Growth?” by Harvard Health Publishing, there is no “scientifically valid evidence to suggest that coffee can stunt a person’s growth.” They wrote that “most growth occurs well before most people are drinking coffee regularly. By the time we’re in our teens, most people have almost reached their full height.”

     Many students are more careful about their coffee intake because of the concern about developing a dependence on it. Haley Pickering (‘23) said that she is trying to wean off of coffee because she has developed cravings for it. “I find that in my classes, if I don’t have caffeine in the morning [then] I can’t wait until I get some at lunch,” she said. If she doesn’t have her morning cup of coffee, it affects how she feels throughout the day. “I think that it kind of sets me off my balance for the day. It makes me a little distracted and I’m not in my [normal] mindset,” she said. 

     Partis decided to do “caffeine cleanse” over the summer to see how a sudden lack of caffeine would affect him. “I was working a lot and I found that I would be misplacing things or screwing things up that I would normally be fine with if I had a coffee in the morning,” he said. According to the NCBI scientific report “Caffeine Withdrawal” by Karima R. Sajadi-Ernazarova and others, these are symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. The dopamine in caffeine stimulates your brain and leads to mental alertness, but regular consumption can “produce physical and psychological dependence.” By going “cold turkey” with coffee after creating a habit of drinking it every morning, your brain has to quickly adjust to the lack of caffeine. The report claims that this is what leads to withdrawal symptoms, including “headache, fatigue, decreased energy/activeness, decreased alertness, drowsiness, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and feeling foggy/not clear headed.”

     If you are really worried about the withdrawal symptoms and are uncomfortable with feeling dependent on a substance, Morrell has suggestions on how to deal with cutting coffee out of your diet in a comfortable way. “The best way to reduce those symptoms would be slowly backing down from coffee,” she said. By having a little less coffee each day, your body has time to adjust to less caffeine intake. Morrell said that any withdrawal symptoms will go away after a week to ten days. 

     Morrell brought up the importance of considering what you are consuming along with the coffee. “For coffee and energy drinks, we see people mix them with alcohol and other drugs [and] smoking. There are other behaviors that get tied in with caffeine consumption. That is probably the bigger concern,” she said. The caffeine in coffee can dilute the depressant effect of alcohol, cause increased memory impairment when mixed with marijuana, and increase the blood pressure of cigarette-smokers. By combining coffee with other variables, consumers take away from its health benefits.

     Whether you consider coffee as healthy or not lies with your priorities. Nutritionally and medically, coffee has shown to have many benefits. Dependence on caffeine has been well-studied and has been concluded to be less of a concern for most people. Morrell said that the key to a healthy caffeine intake is balance and moderation, which is different for everybody. She said that even if you consume more than what is recommended, “we’re not seeing detrimental effects. Some people might feel a little more anxious or jittery, but we’re not seeing long-term health effects for most people.”