The Effects of Caffeine on Children and Adolescents

Today, I was driving on the highway and heard John Tesh on the radio talking about Caffeine consumption by those under the age of 19.  It was rather interesting what he had to share and got me thinking about this topic.

When taken in moderate amounts, caffeine is relatively safe.   A little caffeine can be helpful to ones concentration, sharpening thoughts, and help one remain energized at work or school.  According to the Mayo Clinic, most adults can safely consume 200 to 300 mg of caffeine per day, which is about the equivalent of two to four cups of coffee. But heavy caffeine use, or the consumption of 500 to 600 mg of the drug per day, can have side effects such as:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Shakiness
  • Dizziness
  • Sleep disorders
  • Upset stomach
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Dehydration

Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than are others. If you’re susceptible to the effects of caffeine, just small amounts — even one cup of coffee or tea — may prompt unwanted effects, such as restlessness and sleep problems.

How you react to caffeine may be determined in part by how much caffeine you’re used to drinking. People who don’t regularly drink caffeine tend to be more sensitive to its negative effects. Other factors may include genetics, body mass, age, medication use and health conditions, such as anxiety disorders.

We know caffeine can impact sleep.  Adults often drink caffeine because it can help them focus.  But when it affects children’s sleep—which mounting evidence says is critical for brain development—it can really hold them back. 

You’re not getting enough sleep

Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. But caffeine, even in the afternoon, can interfere with this much-needed sleep.

Chronically losing sleep — whether it’s from work, travel, stress or too much caffeine — results in sleep deprivation. Sleep loss is cumulative, and even small nightly decreases can add up and disturb your daytime alertness and performance.

Using caffeine to mask sleep deprivation can create a vicious cycle.  For example, you may drink caffeinated drinks because you have trouble staying awake during the day.  But the caffeine keeps you from falling asleep at night, shortening the length of time you sleep. 
According to Dr. Reto Huber, a sleep expert at the University of Zurich, during adolescence, your brain has the most neural connections it will ever have during ones lifetime. 
“The brain of children is extremely plastic due to the many connections,” Huber said in a statement accompanying the research. “This optimization presumably occurs during deep sleep.  Key synapses extend, others are reduced; this makes the network more efficient and the brain more powerful.”  Children and adolescents are indeed harming their development when they become caught in the vicious cycle of using caffeine to stay focused, and they are then losing sleep. 

All parents know that their children don’t sleep well if they’re jacked up on caffeine. But a larger concern is that the sleep they miss out on could keep them from reaching their academic potential. 

What can one do?

Begin making changes to your caffeine habit, try these tips:

  • Track. Start paying attention to how much caffeine you’re getting from foods and beverages, including energy drinks.  Read labels carefully. But remember that your estimate may be lower because some foods o

    r drinks that contain caffeine don’t list it.

  • Switch to decaf or go herbal. Most decaffeinated beverages look and taste the same as their caffeinated counterparts.  Or choose herbal teas that don’t have caffeine.
  • Cut back slowly.  Drink one less can of soda or drink a smaller cup of coffee each day.  Or avoid drinking caffeinated beverages late in the day.  This will help your body acclimate to the lower levels of caffeine and therefore lessen potential withdrawal effects.
  • Shorten the brew time. When making tea, brew it for less time. This cuts down on its caffeine content.
  • Check the labels.  Some over-the-counter pain relievers contain caffeine — as much as 130 mg of caffeine in one dose.  Look for caffeine-free pain relievers instead. 

The bottom line

Take steps early to prevent further problems from developing.  Moderation and time of day consumption may be the best way to combat the problem of too much caffeine.