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I am Louise O'Driscoll, founder of Natural Balance. I am a Certified Eating Psychology Coach, helping people find their way to a healthy and happy relationship with food and body.

By louiseodriscoll, Jun 1 2014 04:47PM

The history books show that we have been enjoying caffeine since the 15th century and probably never more so than today, with a coffee shop on every corner and a huge range of energy drinks containing high doses of the stuff, our love affair seems to be unending. Yet still the scientists can't seem to give us a definite answer on whether it is definitely good or bad for us. Here I attempt to weigh up the pros and cons....

The Science Bit

Our bodies naturally produce a compound called adenosine, levels of which rise in our bodies as the day progresses and gradually slow our central nervous systems down, ready for rest and sleep at bedtime. When caffeine is ingested, it impersonates the adenosine but effectively boots it out of the way, stopping it doing its job and keeping the central nervous system running at speed. This explains the 'jolt' some people experience when they have a caffeine hit.

Like other powerful substances such as sugar (and at the more extreme end of the scale, cocaine and heroin), caffeine prompts the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates the pleasure centres in our brains. It also slows down the reabsorption of the dopamine and for some people, this is what makes caffeine addictive.

Benefits of caffeine

Studies have shown that there is a long list of impressive potential health benefits we can gain from caffeine

- it can improve concentration

- it can increase physical performance during exercise

- it can boost metabolism

- it provides a dose of antioxidants

- it can boost mood

There is good evidence to show that caffeine can reduce the likelihood of suffering

- cirrhosis of the liver

- gallstones

- Type 2 diabetes

- Alzheimer's disease

- liver cancer

- Parkinson's disease

Negative effects of caffeine

- caffeine exaggerates the stress response

- it leads to an increase in blood sugar and in blood pressure

- it can also lead to decreased bone density

- it can be addictive

For some people caffeine also causes

- chronic fatigue

- digestive problems

- anxiety

- sleep disturbance

- heart palpitations

- depression and irritability

- cravings for certain foods

As with lots of foods, different people react differently to caffeine. For my money, if caffeine is causing any of the problems above then it's likely to be cancelling out the possible benefits in the first list. The negative impact that chronic stress, poor sleep, anxiety and depression in particular can have on health should not be underestimated. My advice to anyone who regularly has caffeine, suffers from any of the second list above and wonders if there may be a connection, is to gradually cut their caffeine intake down to nil (halve it every three days until you can drop the last one or two drinks). Stay off it for a couple of weeks  and monitor how you feel - then have a coffee and see what your body tells you. That is the best answer you will get!

If your body responds happily to it, the optimum dose of caffeine to get the health benefits appears to be 3-5 cups a day. I'd try and keep these to the first half of the day to avoid any impact on sleep, and make it good quality coffee, rather than energy drinks or colas that invariably contain high doses of sugar or artificial sweeteners along with the caffeine.

If you want a healthy alternative to coffee, try choosing green tea, it gives a gentle caffeine buzz, but carries huge health benefits in terms of antioxidants and an apparent thermogenic (metabolic boosting) effect. To be the subject of another blog post!

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