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Want to Clean Up Your Diet?

If you want to start eating and drinking foods and beverages that make you feel good inside and out, start by eliminating drinks that contain this drug from your diet.

Caffeine is an addictive drug that four out of five American adults use every day, whether it be in coffee, soft drinks, tea or another form. If you feel you may be addicted to caffeine and wish to give it up, try the following:

  1. Start by choosing a period of time when you have relatively few obligations, such as a long weekend.
  2. Commit to trying three caffeine-free days, and see how you feel afterwards.
  3. Prepare to experience tiredness, irritability and a very bad headache, especially after avoiding caffeine for 24 hours. Diminish the discomfort by keeping yourself busy: take walks, spend time in the garden, or do other light, soothing activities.
  4. Avoid anything that may aggravate a headache, such as prolonged TV watching or reading in low light. These side effects will eventually diminish - and are worth it in the long run.

Or, consider weaning yourself off caffeine by gradually reducing your intake. Substitute green tea or decaffeinated coffee for caffeinated coffee, and drink water or fruit juice mixed with sparkling water in lieu of cola. Breathing exercises, physical exercise and a diet that incorporates plenty of fruits and vegetables may also help reduce the severity of side effects.

Bad News About Energy Drinks

New research conducted in France suggests that consuming energy drinks can lead to heart problems including angina (chest pain that follows decreased blood flow to the heart), irregular heartbeat and even sudden death. The main problem with these drinks is the caffeine they contain. Of the 212 adverse effects connected to energy drinks reported to the French food safety agency between January 1, 2009 and November 30, 2012, 95 were cardiovascular symptoms, 74 psychiatric and 57 neurological symptoms, although these problems sometimes overlapped. Of the heart problems documented in the study, cardiac arrests and sudden or unexplained deaths occurred in at least eight cases, the investigators reported, while 46 people developed heart rhythm disorders and 13 experienced angina. The most common presenting symptoms were diagnosed as “caffeine syndrome” characterized by tachycardia (fast heart rate), tremor, anxiety and headache. Study leader Milou-Daniel Drici, a professor of clinical pharmacology at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, advised doctors to alert patients with cardiac conditions to the danger energy drinks can pose, and to ask young patients if they consume them. Dr. Drici presented the report at the European Society of Cardiology 2014 conference on August 31 in Barcelona, Spain.

My take? This new French study expands on what we already know about the health effects of caffeine in energy drinks. Consuming more than 250 mg of caffeine can cause restlessness, nervousness, excitement, insomnia, flushed face, increased urination, gastrointestinal disturbance, muscle twitching, rambling flow of thought and speech, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat) or cardiac arrhythmia, periods of inexhaustibility (where a person seems unable to use up all their energy) and psychomotor agitation (repeated activity such as pacing or handwringing). Unfortunately, the amount of caffeine in energy drinks is not listed on the label in the U.S. Prompted in part by the number of adverse effects reported, the FDA has started looking into the addition of caffeine in many products – food as well as drinks - and its effects on children and adolescents. It’s about time.

Menopause and Caffeine

First the bad news: women who suffer from hot flashes may be making their symptoms worse if they drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages. The Mayo Clinic recently conducted the most comprehensive study ever to investigate the relationship between caffeine and menopausal symptoms. A total of 2,507 women seen at the Mayo Women’s Health Clinic in Rochester, Minn., participated. The women responded to a health questionnaire devised by the journal Menopause, which published the study online on July 21, 2014. Past studies have reached conflicting conclusions regarding a link between caffeine intake and hot flashes. The good news is that this same study showed that caffeine consumption by perimenopausal women was linked to fewer problems with mood, memory and concentration. While the study’s conclusions were described by its authors as “preliminary,” Stephanie Faubion, M.D., director of Mayo’s Women’s Health Clinic, noted that the results do suggest that limiting caffeine intake may be prudent for women suffering from hot flashes and night sweats.

My take? Hot flashes can make a woman’s life miserable as she enters menopause, but luckily in most cases, the symptoms resolve on their own, usually within six months to a year. For those considering alternative approaches, black cohosh is an effective option and has been well studied, but unfortunately doesn’t work for all women. Dietary measures I recommend include two helpings daily of whole soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, edamame (green soy beans in the pod) and miso, which may help because these foods contain plant-based estrogens. Women can also try the supplements dong quai, vitamin E and evening primrose oil but, like black cohosh, they don't work for everyone. The most reliable treatment is estrogen replacement, which may be worth considering on a short-term basis, at the lowest effective dose, if nothing else helps.

Caffeine for Better Memory

If you have to remember something for 24 hours, a cup of coffee may help. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University tested the effect of caffeine on short interval memory in more than 100 volunteers who didn’t regularly drink caffeinated beverages. First, they showed the participants hundreds of pictures of familiar items on a computer screen and asked if each image was an indoor or outdoor object. Five minutes later, the researchers provided half the participants 200 mg of caffeine and half of them a placebo (neither the researchers nor the participants knew which was which). The next day, the research team showed the participants more images and asked them to label each one as old, new or similar to an image they had seen the previous day. Participants who had received caffeine proved better at identifying the similar pictures while those who received the placebo were more likely to mistakenly identify similar images as the ones they had seen before. The researchers reported that memory was enhanced only with 200 mg of caffeine – less didn’t work. They also found that taking the caffeine before seeing the images didn’t seem to help bolster recall later.

Michael Yassa et al, “Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans,” Nature Neuroscience,” doi: 10.1038/nn.3623

Caffeine and Kids’ Brains

The amount of caffeine kids consume may be disrupting kids' brainsWhile adolescents are fast asleep, their brains are busy maturing, making key connections (synapses), a process that continues until adulthood. But the amount of caffeine kids consume may be disrupting that process, warn a group of Swiss researchers who investigated how caffeine acts on the brains of rats. A study from the team at the University Children’s Hospital Zurich shows that caffeine intake equivalent to three or four cups of coffee per day reduced rats’ deep sleep and delayed the animals’ brain development. The researchers gave 30-day-old rats moderate amounts of caffeine over five days and measured the electrical current generated by their brains. They found that deep sleep periods were reduced from day 31 until day 42, seven days beyond the time the rats received the caffeine. Not only did the rats’ brain maturation slow, but the investigators reported that the animals, which normally grow more curious with age, remained timid and cautious. The researchers suggested that even if rat brains differ clearly from the human brain, there are enough developmental parallels to raise the issue of whether caffeine intake during puberty is harmless. The study was published in PLoS ONE on September 4, 2013.

Nadja Olini, Salomé Kurth, and Reto Huber. “The Effects of Caffeine on Sleep and Maturational Markers in the Rat,” PLoS ONE, September 4, 2013; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072539