Caffeine Dependency: The Nonstop Cycle of Energy

By Jamie Lattin and Binti Sohn, News Editor and Copy Editor

The most popular psychoactive drug at Acalanes High School isn’t marijuana or ecstasy. It isn’t shrooms, cocaine, LSD, or any of the other drugs that posters in doctors’ offices sternly warn against. 

   In fact, it’s simply sitting in a cup on your teacher’s desk. Caffeine, found commonly in coffee, tea, and energy drinks, steeps through the Acalanes campus.   

   Recently, Acalanes teachers have noticed a marked increase in the number of students drinking caffeinated beverages. According to Spanish teacher Elizabeth Gough, this uphill trend began within the last couple of years. 

   A survey of randomly selected Acalanes students indicates that 63 percent of the student body drinks at least two caffeinated beverages per week, and 24 percent drink more than one per day. 

  Caffeine consumption at Acalanes is comparable to the national average for teens. In 2014, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that 73 percent of children and adolescents consumed caffeine daily. 

   The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t have a set level for youth, but states that any adolescent consumption of caffeine is strongly discouraged. However, the U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends a limit of 400 milligrams of caffeine a day for adults, which translates to two 16–ounce cups of coffee each day. 

   Debra Bussey, an assistant medical group administrator for the Kaiser Permanente medical group, explained that moderation of caffeine intake is extremely important.

   “It’s a stimulant, so it makes your heart go faster, it contracts your blood vessels, and that’s part of the reason you get the rush from the caffeine,” Bussey said.

   Students are not alone in the caffeine craze. According to a survey of the Acalanes faculty, 86 percent of teachers drink at least one caffeinated beverage per day. In comparison to 2 percent of students, 13 percent of Acalanes staff members consume more than 10 caffeinated drinks per week–equivalent to about 1900 milligrams of caffeine. 

   There is also a distinct difference in the preferred beverages of students and faculty. While 79 percent of teachers choose coffee, a majority of students prefer tea. Though, many still turn to coffee for their caffeine fix.

   “I drink coffee because I need it for a quick burst of energy and for focus during the school day,” junior Zach Baisas said.

   The consumption of energy drinks appears to diminish in adulthood, as no Acalanes teachers reported preferring them compared to one-fifth of students who did. 

   Although the Acalanes Human and Social Development (HSD) program places emphasis on the nature of caffeine dependence, many students interviewed disregarded these warnings. 

   As junior Fox Fleischmann said, the typical response to information presented in HSD about caffeine is “Cool. I don’t care.”

   In fact, some students increased their caffeine intake based on information learned in this class. According to junior Beth Hamalian, HSD alleviated her fears of caffeine addiction.

   “Originally I was terrified of drinking caffeine because I thought I was going to get addicted to it, and then I learned that you can’t actually be addicted to caffeine,” Hamalian said. 

   Although actual caffeine addiction is a myth, one can develop a dependence on the substance in a matter of days. This dependence punishes reliant consumers for ceasing caffeine intake. 

   Reflective of this, 30 percent of students and teachers reported drowsiness due to caffeine withdrawal. 

   “Usually people who are younger have more energy, so I wonder about them being dependent on caffeine for energy at such a young age,” Gough said.

   According to a report by Johns Hopkins neuroscience professor Doctor Roland Griffiths, caffeine withdrawal leads to levels of fatigue beyond typical weariness. 

   “If I do not have caffeine, or coffee specifically, then my productivity steeply declines,” English and history teacher James Muñoz said.

   Muñoz, who drinks around three to five cups of coffee daily, previously struggled with caffeine dependence during his days as a busy college student working at Starbucks. According to Muñoz, his high coffee intake made him jittery, anxious, and unable to get a good night’s sleep. 

   “I wanted to be able to sleep more naturally and knew that caffeine was interrupting my sleep,” Muñoz said. “I decided that this was just very unhealthy. So I cut caffeine out completely.” 

   Like any drug, his withdrawal from coffee had consequences.

   “The worst part was the headaches. They felt like migraines… they were nearly debilitating,” Muñoz said. 

    Muñoz’s experience is not a unique one. In fact, 49 percent of teachers and 15 percent of students reported headaches as a side effect of caffeine withdrawal. 

   “If I don’t drink caffeine in the morning I have a headache the entire day and I can’t function until I get my coffee,” junior Carly Arends said. 

   According to an article by neurologist Linda Peckel, caffeine causes constriction of blood vessels in the brain. Withdrawal from caffeine reverses this constriction and causes rebound headaches. 

     In an academic or professional setting, caffeine withdrawal can be especially detrimental. 

     “I felt like my dependence on caffeine was sort of eroding my credibility,” Muñoz said.

     Students might spend the entire day in a distracted state and be unable to focus on classwork.

    “I feel more tired in the morning and it’s harder for me to wake up.  It’s also harder to pay attention in class. I also get more irritated at small things,” Hamalian said.

   Dependence on caffeine can also be expensive. A typical beverage from Starbucks or Peet’s costs around $2.75 but can cost $5.00 or more depending on the order. 

   Because of these steep prices, many Dons choose to make coffee or tea at home. 

   While recognizing these concerns, many students continue their caffeine habits for the sake of their education.

   “At the end of the day, I think I’d rather commit to drinking coffee every morning than falling asleep in class on accident,” Hamalian said.

   The stimulant, however, is best taken in moderation.

   “I think once you get to the point where caffeine is the only thing that makes you feel best, that’s when it controls you and you don’t control it,” Bussey said. 

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