Thanks in large part to television shows and movies, most people don’t think there’s anything wrong with drinking several cups of coffee a day. You watch a show like Gilmore Girls, in which a recurring motif is the frantic search for coffee, or see doctors carrying cups in between shifts in Grey’s Anatomy, or watch Carrie hold a Starbucks cup while strolling through New York in Sex and the City, and you think drinking copious amounts of coffee is glamorous and cool.
The truth is that coffee is a widely used and unregulated psychoactive drug. Like cocaine, caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that helps you stay awake and, in some cases, even gives you a temporary high. Like cocaine, caffeine is highly addictive, and going off it after habitual usage prompts some nasty withdrawal symptoms. Like any other drug, caffeine can also be abuse and lead to an overdose. (Yes, those can actually be lethal.)
According to the FDA, it’s safe for an adult to drink 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, or 4 cups. The reason that’s misleading, however, is that people forget that, here in the U.S., we don’t drink out of standard-size cups, which are 8 ounces. We drink out of mugs that contain 12 ounces or more. How much you can safely consume varies depending on your weight, but the basic guideline is that over 500 mg can lead to caffeine intoxication. That means that even just one Venti Caramel Macchiato (which is 20 oz, aka 567 milligrams), could give you supraventricular tachycardia, the medical term for an accelerated heart rate, and having another one of those could even hours later could even kill you. A study in 1997 found that drinking more than 687 mg a day increased the risk of heart attack by 44%.
If you think death-by-caffeine sounds a bit dramatic—or even ridiculous—please know that it’s happened before. Just last year, a 16-year-old named Davis Allen Cripe, of Chapin, South Carolina, died from a caffeine overdose, having had a large Mountain Dew, a latte from McDonalds, and an energy drink within the span of two hours. The tragedy spurred people to spread awareness over the dangers of drinking too much caffeine, and prompted people to check just how much caffeine a product had before consuming it.
The scary thing is that you’re already probably consuming more caffeine that you realize. In 2013, the FDA announced that they were investigating new products after it was found that some companies were adding caffeine to jelly beans, waffles, syrup, marshmallows, sunflower seeds, and even water, to get help people get addicted to their product. The worst part of this is that a lot of these products are marketed to teens and kids, who are the most likely to die of a caffeine overdose. The announcement came just after Wrigley’s began promoting a new pack of 8-piece gum that contained as much caffeine as four cups of coffee.
A heart attack isn’t even the only potentially fatal disease you can get from coffee. California is currently debating whether or not to place warning signs on coffee, because it contains acrylamide–a chemical that is known to increase the risk of cancer and birth defects.
So if you’re thinking of quitting coffee, but worried it’ll inhibit your ability to stay awake, check out 25 Non-Coffee Ways to Boost Your Energy Levels.
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