We’re all junkies: Caffeine addictions gone wrong

Marijuana is still considered illegal in a majority of the US, but Americans don’t need to let that little fact keep them from their pleasure-seeking adventures. There’s one drug out there that is completely legal, easily obtainable and we’re told so often it’s part of our normal daily grind that it’s like society is telling us to become junkies. It’s in soda, it’s in tea, it’s in coffee and if that isn’t enough to perk you up for three nights straight, cut the middleman and buy an over-the-counter box of pills. The drug is caffeine.

Natasha Harris of New Zealand was a coke addict – Coca Cola, that is – who died in 2010 of cardiac arrest. When the coroner ran toxicology on her body, he concluded that the addiction killed her. Although the caffeine may not have been the sole perpetrator in this case, drinking more than two gallons a day and taking in approximately a gram of caffeine was not a healthy choice for this 31-year-old mother of eight. It’s not a perfect anecdote, but it shows the dangers of addiction to what we consider a legal substance.

Which addiction is yours? Graphic by Katie Gibson.

Which addiction is yours? Graphic by Katie Gibson.

Caffeine is a stimulant, and like any drug you can become physically dependent on it, suffer from withdrawal if you don’t get it and overdose if you have too much of it, such was Harris’ tragedy. Symptoms of being strung out on coffee include changes in alertness, mood swings, headaches, rapid or irregular heartbeat, trouble breathing, hallucinations, convulsions and needing to pee very badly.

In low doses, caffeine is somewhere between a good thing and a bad thing. Intoxication is immediate and noticeable, but caffeine can also damage your health in more subtle ways, such as causing dependence, sleep disorders and agitating previously existing anxiety disorders. It can also be good for you. Having some caffeine in your system can lower your risk of cancer. This study from the University of Columbia showed that caffeine inhibited cancer growth and triggered cellular death in exposed ovarian cancer cells.  Caffeine can pass the blood-brain barrier and stimulate the production of dopamine and serotonin, which combat depression, so a little caffeine in the wintertime can chase away those cold-weather blues.

Now for the big question: How much caffeine does it take to go from waking yourself up in the morning to horrible hallucinogenic heart failure? The “safe limit” on caffeine is 400 milligrams for the average adult. One soda isn’t going to do the job because most sodas only average about 50 milligrams of caffeine per can, and you need 150 milligrams to become intoxicated. A Starbucks tall coffee, on the other hand, contains 260 milligrams of caffeine. Depending on your age and weight, you may be fine with one Starbucks coffee. Fortunately, energy drinks have even more caffeine to give you that buzz you’re looking for.

Remember this the next time you order your Frappuccino at Starbucks. You may think you’re just giving yourself a treat, but you’re really feeding your addiction. Starbucks Anonymous, anyone?