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Mental Health

How Much Coffee Is Too Much?

Anyone who knows me well knows not to mess with me before I’ve had my morning cup of coffee. It’s a daily ritual that’s become second nature to me. It’s as normal and necessary as brushing my teeth, popping my contacts in and throwing on some makeup in the morning. I admit that there are a few days here and there when I go without my morning coffee fix, but I’m rudely reminded of my forgetfulness later in the day when a pounding headache and all-over fatigue creeps up on my body. At that point, all I can think about is getting to the nearest cup of coffee and downing it all in one gulp.
But how did it get to this? And am I alone? Is this healthy?
I used these questions as the basis for this article, along with a few other lessons I learned through my own personal journey with my drug of choice: coffee.
Nutritionist Susan Holmberg says there’s no denying it: caffeine is a drug. But she says coffee itself isn’t really the problem. “What goes in your coffee can also make all the difference,” explains Holmberg. “The milk, the half and half, the sweetener. That’s what makes the difference between healthy and unhealthy.”
So coffee intake varies greatly from person to person. You might be the kind of person who drowns her coffee with six half n’ halfs so your coffee is sugary sweet and light beige in color. I personally take mine black. Right there, the difference in our calorie intakes is upwards of a few hundred calories.
Needless to say, “going out for coffee” means something different to every person, because there are so many different ways to take it. Coffee, that is.

How Coffee Affects Your Body
The effects of coffee also vary from one individual to another. “It has to do with a person’s own genetic make-up,” says Holmberg. “It depends on an individual’s liver detoxification enzymes, which play a role in how quickly or slowly coffee is detoxified in the body.” She also says that the elasticity of an individual’s arteries can affect the rate of detoxification. Pore caffeine detoxification temporarily decreases the elasticity of your arteries. For example, if your body does not detoxify caffeine efficiently, the elasticity of your arteries is temporarily affected. Over many years, this can lead to damage of your arteries and your cardiac health.
Holmberg says that temporarily stiff arteries are something that you yourself would not notice about your body. However, you can have your body’s individual rate of detoxification measured. “Basically, caffeine stiffens your arteries for as long as it takes your body to detoxify the caffeine,” says Holmberg. “It’s all different for every individual, which is why it’s so hard to determine whether studies are truthful or not because they may apply to one person but not to another.”

How It Begins
College is crazy. Before you know it, your schedule is chock full, and you find yourself relying on caffeine to keep you going. I personally started drinking coffee in high school. I drank it every morning, and if I didn’t, let’s just say I knew I wasn’t going to be having a good day. Elon student Camille DeMere has a similar relationship with coffee. “I started drinking coffee drinks really young, like 13,” she said. “But I didn’t move past a latte a week until junior year. Then, it seemed like with a waitressing job, a full schedule and too many extracurriculars, I needed it just to keep going.”
I’m sure that Camille and I are not alone in our necessity for coffee to keep up with our busy lives. Holmberg says that needing one or two cups of coffee every day isn’t bad, as long as you don’t overdo it. Overdoing it would be drinking more than three cups a day.
The Good

Here’s the good news:
if you’re a frequent coffee drinker, then take comfort in the fact that there are many healthy benefits you are reaping from your drug of choice. Holmberg says that coffee has gotten a lot of “good press” recently. “Coffee is the best source of antioxidants,” she says. Holmberg also says that if your drinking coffee every day is not abusive, then there is actually some benefit to doing so, such as an increase in athletic performance and concentration. “Most articles I’ve read recommend sticking to three six-ounce cups a day. And I think this is a good number to stick to,” says Holmberg. So if you’re within this healthy range, then don’t fret. Your addiction is not really a problem.
But be careful: this recommended dosage is about the same size as one Venti-sized drink from Starbucks. If you’re well above this daily amount of caffeine, then Holmberg recommends going “half-caff.” She says you hardly notice, and it’s a simple solution to reducing your daily caffeine intake and becoming a healthier you.
Here are a few more tips from Susan Holmberg to keep your coffee intake at a manageable level:

  • When you’re out buying coffee, get a Small (or Tall in Starbucks Speak) not large (or Venti). The larges are the equivalent of three to four cups.
  • Intersperse or alternate your coffee with herbal tea, bouillon in the winter, or some other healthy decaffeinated beverage.
  • If you are brewing your own coffee, do it one cup at a time.  I do that with my Grind and Brew mainly because I get better, fresher coffee, but it does limit it too.

The Bad
We’ve established that coffee drinking is not a terrible habit to take up. However, like with anything else, it’s always possible to take it too far. “When you start drinking coffee instead of eating, or if you’re constantly crashing and going back for more, then it’s becoming a problem, and you need to try to cut back,” warns Holmberg.
Holmberg also warns about drinking decaffeinated coffee. “Coffee is decaffeinated using chemicals that are not good for you. How the coffee is decaffeinated is really the issue. The only healthy alternative would be water-decaffeinated coffee, or other naturally decaffeinated organic coffee,” she says.
There’s Coffee, And There’s Caffeine…
… and Holmberg is adamant about this fact. “When it comes to coffee, caffeine is really more the problem than the coffee itself,” she says. “Coffee only becomes a problem when college students start combining it with other detrimental things.” She believes that college students often rely on coffee and other caffeinated beverages in order to help them keep up with their fast-paced and often abusive lifestyles. “Too much caffeine beats the crap out of your adrenal glands,” explains Holmberg. “Many college students are shot from their lifestyles, and as a result, their adrenal glands are completely worn out.”
If you’re constantly stressed, sleep-deprived and you’re relying on coffee to keep you going, then you’re using it for the wrong reasons. You’re also only hurting yourself and your body in the long run. “College students are already stressed to begin with, and you’re just enhancing that by using energy drinks, which is basically a form of legal speed,” says Holmberg. “Young bodies can tolerate this, but the reason that you’re doing it is a bigger problem than your actual caffeine intake.”
The Bottom Line
Just like almost everything else, there is always a reasonable middle ground when it comes to drinking coffee. Holmberg is adamant in saying that caffeine is a drug and a chemical, and you have to strike a healthy balance when making it a part of your lifestyle. As long as you’re not completely dependent on coffee as a source of your energy, then a few cups a day won’t hurt you at all. Just be smart about it, keep your coffee intake under control and enjoy your daily cup of joe.
HC readers: tell us about your personal relationship with coffee in the comment box below! How many cups does it take to get you going all day?
Susan Holmberg, M.S., C.M.S
Camille DeMere, Elon University student

Gabriela Szewcow is a freshman Print and Online Journalism major at Elon University in North Carolina. She is originally from Pittsburgh, PA. She is the Design Chief of Elon University’s award-winning newspaper, The Pendulum. She is also a designer for Elon’s yearbook and has a weekly radio show. She is a Spanish minor and hopes to study abroad in Spain sometime during her next three years at Elon. Some of her favorite things include York Peppermint Patties, Jane Austen novels, anything involving Hello Kitty and The Morning Benders. She hopes to someday be a page designer for a newspaper or magazine.
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