The big hand of the clock passes by the 12 yet again–another hour lost. Junior Helen Dinkel drinks a 12-ounce can of Red Bull and throws it in the trashcan. At the bottom of the bin are six other empty energy drinks, two empty Starbucks cups, a used pack of caffeine gum and a large Styrofoam QuikTrip cup: one day’s worth of caffeine for Dinkel.
It’s 3 a.m. and she has been working since the 2:40 final bell that rung almost 12 hours earlier. To her, it seems like an eternity ago. She finishes the page that she is working on for yearbook as well as her English paper that is due in in a mere four hours.
Finally at 4:30 a.m. she closes her laptop and crawls into bed for two hours of sleep before doing it all again.
For one hectic month while finishing the yearbook, Dinkel lived this lifestyle dominated by caffeine and little-to-no sleep. To function, she relied on artificial energy, or energy that is only temporary and not naturally created in the body, like caffeine.
“From the time I’d wake up and have my first cup of coffee, I always had to have some kind of caffeine to keep me going,” Dinkel said.
Caffeine consumption has been on the rise among high school students. According to the American Dietetic Association, the amount of caffeinated drinks consumed by teenagers has tripled since the 1970s. East is no exception to this trend. In a survey of 208 East students, 66 percent reported consuming some kind of caffeine during the school week.
Adolescents are getting their caffeine buzz in a variety of ways; from slurping in black coffee or sipping in green tea, gulping down a soda or knocking back a headache pill.
This pattern of regular caffeine usage comes with a variety of negative health effects, especially in growing adolescents, according to a 2007 Boston University study.
“Having a substantial amount of caffeine every day can contribute to insomnia, or poor sleep, and all the problems that go along with poor sleep, including increased irritability, lack of attention, poor growth, poor judgment and a weakened immune system,” said Dr. Joy Weydert, a pediatrician at KU Medical Center.
As well as loss of sleep, caffeine has been proven to aggravate heart problems, lead to calcium loss, contribute to anxiety and increase long-term memory loss, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The primary reason that students begin to rely on caffeine in high school has to do with the increased academic responsibility that high school brings, as well as the time students devote to doing extracurricular activities and/or having a job, according to a national poll by National Geographic Magazine.
The poll goes on to state that as teachers continue to increase the workload and schedules fill up, planners become harder and harder to follow. Serious studying is often put off until the night before the test, and many students rely on a caffeine buzz to help them through the night, compromising a healthy lifestyle for efficiency.
“[In high school] there are just so many other things you have to do that you didn’t before, so you become more dependent on [caffeine] to make you feel functional,” junior Luke Holsinger, a self-proclaimed caffeine addict, said.
However, according to Dr. Paul Rosenburg, a neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, the common misconception that caffeine will accelerate all mental processes is false, and current studies show that it has little impact on intelligence. So while a trip to Starbucks may keep eyes open through first period, it probably will not improve scores on exams. Along with this, caffeine also disrupts short-term memory, decreases productivity and hinders the ability to learn and absorb new information.
According to Rosenburg, the amount of sugar that some caffeinated beverages, particularly energy drinks, contain is often overlooked.
The nutrition label on a can of Monster Energy drink reads 27 grams of sugar, but lists the serving size as only half a can. Drinking the whole thing results in 54 grams of sugar––14 grams over the daily limit recommended by the Food and Drug Administration.
“When teenagers say they’re drinking a lot of caffeine drinks, I always ask them, ‘Would you take a bath in that drink?’” Weydert said. “ I think it gets people thinking about what you actually put in your body. If you wouldn’t put it on your outside, don’t put it in your inside.”
The alertness that caffeine brings is nothing more than an illusion. It is a stimulant, so rather than eliminate the need for sleep, it merely reduces the sensation of being tired, according to Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University who has studied its effects.
“Caffeine is the most widely used mood-altering drug in the world,” Griffiths said. “We know that caffeine produces physical symptoms, that is, withdrawal symptoms, after abrupt cessation for people that chronically consume it.”
Although not on the same scale as other stimulants like cocaine, caffeine addiction is a serious mental issue, according to the Mayo Clinic. The distinction between a fondness and a dependency for caffeine is often unclear. Many students are unaware of what it truly means to be addicted. According to the Harbinger survey, only nine percent of East caffeine-users consider themselves addicted to caffeine.
“If you can’t go a day without a thing like [caffeine], then you’re addicted, and you cannot just walk away from an addiction,” Weydert said.
According to Weydert, the cycle of addiction to caffeine starts when a person stops getting a restorative sleep at night, and wakes up not feeling refreshed.
According to an article in the National Sleep Journal, teenagers’ bodies are still growing, meaning they actually need more sleep than they did during their childhood years. The recommended amount is 9-10 hours per night, and with early school start times, this rarely happens. Caffeine becomes the solution, and the pattern begins.
A restful sleep cannot happen because the caffeine-user is hyped up on caffeine and can’t settle down to relax and get a good night’s sleep. Then, when they wake up in the morning to get ready for school, they’re sleep-deprived, so they drink more caffeine to wake themselves up.
“When they have to get to that point where they’re using that much of a stimulant to stay going during the day, and then it interferes at night, it becomes a terrible vicious cycle,” Weydert said.
According to the article in the National Sleep Journal, people who regularly take in a lot of caffeine soon develop less sensitivity to it. This means that as teenagers continue to increase consumption, more and more caffeine will be needed to feel the same effects, which leads to increased dependency.
“If I have an audition or some important thing and I forget coffee, then I’m screwed,” Holsinger said. “That scares me; the fact that it affects my performance like that.”
Many students attempt to quit using caffeine at some point, but success in this endeavor is rare because like any drug, symptoms of withdrawal begin to develop.
Symptoms including headache, fatigue, decreased alertness, drowsiness, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, and irritability are common among dependent caffeine-users trying to quit. The onset of these symptoms typically begins 12-24 hours after abstinence, with the peak intensity occurring at 20-51 hours, according to Griffiths.
This plateau when the symptoms are the worst is when most people reach for a coffee––because they feel they need to. This makes quitting no minor task.
“I tried to totally get off caffeine once, and the longest I could ever make it was four days,” Dinkel said. “But it was constant headaches, and I was just in a horrible mood. Every little thing anybody did would just rub me wrong way and I’d get so upset about anything, so I figured it was better to just have the caffeine.”
Instead of quitting all forms of caffeine at once, Weydert instead recommends phasing it out in stages.
“I would not suggest going cold turkey off of it,” Weydert said. “It’s an addiction, your body is craving it, and if you go cold turkey you’re going to feel miserable.”
To make the process of consuming less caffeine easier, there are many natural methods that provide energy without psychological effects.
Water can act as a substitute for caffeine. Many times when people are fatigued and turn to caffeine as a wake-up, it is actually because they are dehydrated.
Caffeine is a diuretic, meaning it promotes the formation of urine by the kidneys, thus causing heightened dehydration. Because of this, as dependency on caffeine decreases, so does dehydration, leading to more energy.
Other natural stimulants that have effects similar to those of caffeine include exercise and exposure to sunlight.
“Things that are going to rev up your system in a natural way, so that you don’t have to be dependent on the caffeine are key,” Weydert said.
If quitting seems like too big a task to accomplish, cutting back a little can still have noticeable effects. Simply keeping tabs and realizing how much caffeine one consumes in a day is proven to reduce caffeine consumption by making users more aware of how much caffeine they are consuming according to Griffiths.
Other things such as choosing decaf beverages and shortening the brew time on tea help decrease caffeine.
Since finishing with the yearbook, Dinkel has been working hard to cut back on her caffeine consumption as well as get more sleep.
“Now, I have a lot more natural energy instead of always having to consume so much caffeine,” Dinkel said. “It just feels better and so much healthier than before.”