Sometimes you get the feeling that the same way that cars run on gasoline, people in Canada and the U.S. run on coffee. Coffee shops, or coffee houses as we now call them to justify the exporbitant prices, dot the landscape just like gas stations. And we fill up, often several times a day, paying more than for gasoline. If we can’t get to Starbucks, or Second Cup, or Java U or Tim’s, we plop a capsule into our Nespresso machine or our Keurig coffee maker. Why? Because we enjoy the flavor, the increased alertness, the improvement in mood, the improvement in athletic performance and perhaps most importantly, the little energy jolt that caffeine gives us. But like with any other drug, which is just what caffeine is, the dosage is critical. Up to about 600 mg a day, caffeine is safe enough, but exceed the safe dose and caffeine can jolt you right out of life. That is just what happened to an unfortunate teenager in Ohio who died last May from an overdose of caffeine. It wasn’t from drinking too much coffee or crazily slurping Red Bull or Jolt Cola or from downing too many vials of 5-Hour Energy or even from gobbling too many caffeine pills.. The cardiac arrhythmia and seizure it triggered were caused by ingesting powdered caffeine.
Caffeine is a substance that occurs naturally in some sixty plants with coffee beans, cacao beans and tea leaves being the best know sources. The plants make caffeine to protect themselves against insects but the chemical can also be synthesized in the laboratory from urea. Whether natural or synthetic makes no difference, caffeine can cause erratic heart rates, seizures, vomiting and in this unfortunate case, death. Exactly how much caffeine the young man ingested isn’t known, but a teaspoon of caffeine which is about 3,200 mgs can be enough to kill. You cannot get such an amount from beverages. A cup of coffee contains about 100 mg, a cola roughly 35 mg, Red Bull about 80 mg and even the most potent “energy beverage,” Jolt Cola has only about 150 mg per 12 unces. A caffeine pill usually contains 100 mg. You would have to drink around forty Red Bulls to approach a lethal dose. Hardly doable. But mixing a teaspoon or two of powdered caffeine into a beverage is very doable. And pure crystalline caffeine can be readily purchased on the internet as a “dietary supplement.” Because caffeine is a naturally occurring substance, it skirts the regulations for selling drugs. No premarket approval is required.
Why do people buy pure caffeine? They likely figure that they can get their caffeine fix more cheaply and with a bigger kick. Plus there’s no need to line up at Starbucks. And undoubtedly many buy into the common belief that if a little bit is good more must be better. This may be especially true for teenagers who are notoriously poor at risk evaluation and readily buy into advertising that promises more energy and greater focus. Marketers usually advise using no more that 200 mg of powdered caffeine but that is difficult to measure out without a balance. It can be estimated as about one fifteenth of a teaspoon, which is very little. It is easy to overdose, especially given that caffeine induces tolerance, meaning that larger doses are needed to have the same effect. There’s no worry about the caffeine in coffee. Some studies have even shown a reduced risk of diabetes and Parkinson’s Disease with coffee consumption. But playing around with pure crystalline caffeine can be a dangerous game.