Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Caffeine - Have You Ever Done the Math?

Ah Dune.  I enjoyed the book trilogy, the board game, the movie (both the long and short versions), and TV series.  And this mantra is burned into my brain:
It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.
It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed,
The lips acquire stains.
The stains become a warning.
It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. 
Hmm, sound familiar?  Let's try some word substitution:
It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.
It is by the juice of caffeine that thoughts acquire speed,
The head suffers migraines.
The migraines become a warning.
It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.
OK, so maybe you have never had a migraine.  I started having them toward the end of graduate school.  However, when I did have them, there was always some mitigating circumstance that I could use to rationalize the cause as being anything but my beloved caffeine.
  • "It was pretty hot out there, I probably got too much sun."
  • "I haven't drank much since [insert time] I am probably just dehydrated."
  • "I didn't sleep well."
  • "Maybe I am coming down with something."
And so on...

Then one day I decided to quit caffeine.  I very carefully weened myself down to no caffeine.  It was really difficult and it took months before I truly felt I was free of it.  Even then, every time I went to lunch I felt like a former alcoholic in a bar.  The iced tea and sodas (my poison of choice way back when) looked so inviting...

Well, after I was sure I was free of its grip, I started allowing myself to drink it again, but I did so with by treating it like alcohol, something I drink infrequently and try not to make a habit of it.  I only drank it in moderation - no more than about two servings and never more than 100 mg or so of caffeine (that's approximately 2 cans of Diet Coke) in a day.

Additionally, because of the half-life of caffeine, I try not to have any after lunch.  The typical half-life is 4-5 hours*, so that gives you plenty of time to clear it out of your system (mostly) in time for bed.

* - this can increase dramatically on certain medications, especially some contraceptives.

Then I tried a diet change that called for green tea at each meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and caffeine re-entered my life.  Like most people, I thought the caffeine would be negligible because of conventional wisdom regarding green tea.

A Little Is Way More Than Zero

While many folks have heard that green tea is low in caffeine, it is important to note that green tea is low with respect to common caffeinated beverages, which tend to be pretty high.  But a "small" amount of caffeine is a lot when you are not a caffeine junkie.

Anyway for the dietary experiment, I grabbed a green tea someone had bought as a gift, broke the seal on the package, and made some for breakfast.  Low and behold, about an hour later, I felt the juice of Sapho, I mean caffeine, taking effect.  That surprised me.

It was time to do some research.

How Much Caffeine is in Green Tea?

Green Tea can contain roughly 2.5-6 mg/oz (if you have better data, please let me know).

I was surprised to find that a typical cup of tea, which is a mere 6 oz., could contain as much as 40 mg of caffeine, which is on par with a 12 oz. soda.  That's right, twice the caffeine of a soda, ounce for ounce.  Sure, it's about half the content of typical [black] tea, and about a third or fifth of the content of brewed coffees, but, again, that is all relative.

When you knock back a cup at each meal, then you are taking in as much as 120 mg (probably less if it's from tea bags, as mine was), which is a lot more than zero.  And if you are not currently a caffeine junkie, it is apparently enough to keep you awake at night...blogging...about caffeine content.

Getting the Good Without the Bad or Ugly

So, let's say you really want those flavonoids, but want to minimize your caffeine; what can you do?  Supplements may get you the flavonoids you seek but I an not a big fan of artificial stuff like that.  I would rather have the natural, unprocessed source.

You might think decaf green tea is the solution...well, it's not as good as you might have thought.  It turns out that the healthy stuff in green tea is significantly reduced by the typical decaffeination process.  Don't feel bad, I too hoped it would be my silver bullet.*

* - since writing this post, I have learned of another decaffeination process that preserves almost all of the flavonoids, as explained in this post.

And you may be ready to point out that Hojicha is low in caffeine, then I will counter with the fact that the roasting process that reduces the amount of caffeine also reduces the amount of catechins (one of the reputedly beneficial components of green tea).

What about steeping time?  Well, caffeine is drawn out of tea pretty quickly.  The vast majority of it is coaxed out in the first minute of steeping.  On the other hand, some sources describe it taking as much as five minutes to fully reap the rewards of green tea.

Some sources say that using a tea bag instead of loose leaf reduces caffeine.  But given that all of the other caffeine-reducing processes and tricks also reduce the health benefits, I have to wonder if a teabag is an unhealthy idea.

Sidenote: The Art of Self-Delusion

While trying to find out more about green teas, I stopped at a Whole Food.  I figured that the hippie of chain grocery stores would know.  Humorously enough, they did not.  In fact, the conversation turned easily to a discussion in which the staff member helping me was staring in disbelief as I laid out the math and explained to him that even though he was not a "soda head" the amount and type of coffee he was taking in each day had the caffeine content of half a gallon of soda.  This was more interesting because his first comment on the topic was, "yeah, I don't drink much caffeine".

In fact, he was easily putting down 300 mg a day.

I feel like our perception of caffeine is skewed by our infatuation with it.  For example, the Mayo Clinic describes 200-300 mg per day as healthy and unlikely to cause any negative effects; for that, according to them, you need to take in more than 500-600 mg per day.

And yet, here I am hours past my bedtime, after a grueling workout and a typical workday, restless, and blogging, with no more than 120 mg taken in this day.  I guess I can't blame Mayo.  How many people show up for clinical studies in the US that have been 100% clean of caffeine for a long enough period of time to reset their sensitivity back to what it probably should be?  I suspect it is a very tiny minority, given the looks of shock and disbelief I get when I recount the tale of quitting caffeine.

A Healthy Problem

So, you might want to do that math and be sure you are not oblivious to how much caffeine you ingest.  I think the Mayo clinic guidelines are too generous, personally, but then again, if your study participant spends most of their life jacked up on caffeine, then maybe that 200-300 mg is healthy for them.  I would personally shoot for trying to stay below 100 mg, but then again, I am trying to avoid having caffeine significantly affect my mood, activity level, etc.

As for the folks that want their green tea, do they develop a tolerance of caffeine all over again?  Switch to supplements?  Switch to decaf green tea? Or maybe  just blow off the green tea altogether.  With so many of these studies coming from epidemiology (this group of people exhibit some healthy thing, and they also happen to drink more tea), maybe it's not worth chasing.

I am not sure, but thankfully, I am finally getting tired.  So, time to post and try to sleep once again.

Whatever you do, take a moment and do the math.  If you have migraines, consider trying to wean yourself off of caffeine for about six months and see what happens.  But don't forget to drink water.

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