Caffeine 101: final examination

Tis the season of all-nighters.

As finals week rapidly approaches, students are using every ounce of time to cram for exams. Students will often turn to energy drinks, soft drinks and coffee drinks to stay awake to study.

But at what cost?

While a few cups of coffee to wake up is socially acceptable in American culture, the problem arises when the amount of caffeine consumed is severely increased, said Brandon Meline, director of maternal and child health at the Champaign Urbana Public Health District.

“After a three- to four-fold increase from coffee to an energy drink, it can be physiologically stimulating almost immediately,” Meline said. “So someone can go from a calm, unagitated state to, after drinking a 400-milligram beverage, being really wired.”

By regularly consuming caffeine, people will develop a tolerance toward the stimulant, which can vary from person to person, he said. However, even a regular user can suffer from negative side effects if the dosage is greatly increased.

Meline cites jitters, anxiousness and inability to concentrate or fall asleep as side effects from too much caffeine.

Leia Kedem, a graduate assistant for McKinley’s health education unit, agrees, noting that a consistently high intake of caffeine can lead to symptoms of withdrawal, such as headaches and drowsiness, that are only alleviated once the person has some caffeine.

Over the summer, junior in LAS Alex Nordlund got a taste of these withdrawal symptoms when he had to go for a week without his energy drink of choice, Amp. He quickly switched to coffee to get his caffeine fix.

“I’m more alert and I am able to pay attention better in class,” Nordlund said.

With finals just around the corner, more students may turn to caffeine to stay up late studying.

Joe Chavez, assistant manager of the Walgreen’s on Green Street, notes that energy drink sales at the store rise nearing finals week.

“It pumps me up,” said Marty St. Aubin, senior in ACES. “I’ll have it if I need it, if I am tired.” Meline suggests that students don’t wait until the night before a test to experiment using energy drinks. This could lead to overstimulation, inability to fall asleep and then a crash by exam time. “It’s important that if your body is not used to it, you don’t try too much because you don’t know how your body will react,” Meline said.

Also, students should not have too much caffeine right before exam time.

“From a test–taking perspective, you are going to need to shut down some of your brain to be able to concentrate,” Meline said. “For an exam, a stimulant can interfere with the ability to retain information and being able to pull information out of the memory bank.”

Kedem recommends that students eat nutritious foods, take short naps or go for brisk walks in order to get energy.

While the caffeine is one thing to be conscious of, other ingredients are an important factor as well. Teas and coffee have been shown to have antioxidants, Kedem said. Chavez said he sells more teas and Gatorades than energy drinks, probably due to students wanting to be healthier.

Students should be aware of sugar and other ingredients that could add calories to the drink but no nutritional value, Kedem said.

“A lot of companies are claiming that their drinks have all sorts of things added to them to make them sound healthier, like taurine, vitamins and minerals,” said Kedem in an e–mail. “What most people don’t realize is that you’re probably getting more than enough of those things from your diet, and extra amounts probably aren’t going to confer any additional health benefits.”

Energy drinks that advertise themselves as energy “supplements,” such as Amp and Monster, are not required to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, and therefore have looser standards when it comes to regulating how much caffeine is in each product, Meline said.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, the FDA is only responsible for taking action against unsafe dietary supplements after they reach the market, according to the FDA Web site.

“Supplements are buyer bewares,” Meline said. “If a caffeine supplement says there is 400 milligrams of caffeine in the can, there might be 300, there could be 500, you don’t know because they aren’t required to do rigorous testing since the FDA doesn’t have to approve anything.”

Nordlund, who drinks an energy drink a day, and St. Aubin, who drinks caffeine about two times a week, are both not worried about the amount of caffeine they are putting in their bodies, explaining that other people have a lot more caffeine than they do.

“It’s okay to have them every once in a while as long as there is not a ridiculous amount of caffeine or sugar,” St. Aubin said.

While there is nothing wrong with using caffeine to get through a day, Meline cautions students not to push the limit, and keep consumption in moderation.

“People need to be more conscious of their consumption because a high caffeine content can very easily lead to abuse,” Meline said.