Coffee: Poison or health potion?

As dead week approaches, many of us begin to wonder, “Can I drink so much coffee that I become hospitalized and delay taking my exam?” The answer is: maybe. The health outlook for moderate coffee consumption is unclear, but too much too fast can definitely do you in.

Before I get started on details, let’s get one thing straight — I’m not your doctor and I’m not liable for any advice you choose to take from this column; same goes for the Exponent and everyone associated with it. Now, let’s open this can of worms.

In 2010, a 23-year-old British man died after taking two spoonfuls of pure caffeine powder at a party. There have been various deaths over the past century resulting from caffeine overdoses, all of which were attributed to extreme negligence or a previous heart condition. The hard numbers aren’t easy to find — so few people die of caffeine overdoses that there isn’t a mechanism for reporting them. For some perspective, more people die each year from water overdoses, Tylenol overdoses and lawnmower accidents.

Caffeine is manufactured by plants to paralyze and kill certain insects that feed on it. Here’s the good news: Your body is well equipped to turn out poison. Well before you reach toxic levels, you will become nauseous and begin to vomit. That’s not the case when you take pure spoonfuls of caffeine, but let’s hope your study regimen doesn’t come to that.

You’ve probably all had a little too much caffeine before, but in case you didn’t know, overdose symptoms include (in no particular order): shakiness, paranoia, anxiety, high blood pressure, breathing trouble, convulsions, diarrhea, dizziness, fever, hallucinations, irregular heartbeat, muscle twitching, vomiting, nausea and insomnia.

None of those symptoms will help you ace your physics exam, so it’s best to play it on the safe side if you’re on your 15th cup. The average cup of coffee contains between 80 and 200 milligrams of caffeine. In a 200-pound person, a lethal dose is 17.2 grams. However, that number is an overestimate based on rat studies — rats metabolize drugs much faster than humans. People have been hospitalized after consuming as few as two grams of caffeine. In the hospital you will face anything from ingesting charcoal to having a hose shoved into your stomach in a process called gastric lavage. I’ll just take a lower grade on the exam, thanks.

Drinking coffee isn’t all bad — in fact, a large and growing body of research has associated coffee drinking (even 10 cups a day) with better health. A great article on coffee health benefits with links to peer reviewed journal articles was published by the Atlantic last week. You can access it by clicking here.

To grossly oversimplify her analysis: Coffee consumption is linked to dozens of health benefits including a lower risk of developing multiple types of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, liver problems, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. Coffee has even been shown to function as a painkiller and antidepressant. Many of these benefits come from the under-researched chemicals in coffee that give it flavor and aroma such as plant phenols, chlorogenic acids and quinides.

The take-home message is this: Some coffee may be good for your health. Too much will result in a nasty medical bill and a sore stomach, especially if you’re using energy drinks or caffeine pills on top of your brew.