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Can You Caffeinate Yourself to Death?

Debra Cole


I awoke one morning to my nearly two-year-old son poking me in the back. My husband had been taking care of him while I “slept in” (read:8 a.m.). I rolled over and focused my eyes on a package of Clif Shot Bloks, a runner’s source of nutrition that doubles as my morning caffeine. (I am of a rare breed of human who dislikes coffee.)

“Mommy’s vitamins?” he asked, shoving the package in my face. Clearly, he had internalized the unspoken lesson that Mommy would get out of bed only after ingesting two cubes of sweet, caffeine-y goodness.

I was chastened. But the combination of mothering and working has gotten the best of me, and I can’t get by without a jolt or two per day. Anyway, is caffeine really all that bad?

Can Caffeine Kill You?

March is National Caffeine Awareness Month, sponsored by the not-for-profit National Caffeine Awareness Association. The Association’s “Caffeine Risk Test” estimates your risk on a scale of 1 to 12. Based on my sex and weight, the amount of caffeine I consume is “non-addictive.” (Phew.) The scale of conditions ranges from “Non-Addictive” (Comment: “Considered safe by most doctors”) all the way to “Death” (Comment: “Call next of kin”).

Is it really possible to caffeinate yourself to death? Well, yes, there are some cases of fatal caffeine overdoses, according to Forensic Science International, but they are exceedingly rare. An estimated fatal overdose is 5 to 10 grams. The Mayo Clinic offers a handy chart listing the amount of caffeine in popular beverages. For example, a 12-ounce bottle of Coca Cola Zero contains 35 milligrams (mg) of caffeine, a 2-ounce serving of 5-Hour Energy contains 207 mg and a 16-ounce Starbucks Latte has 150 mg. (Note that even Starbucks “decaf” has 25 mg of caffeine per 16-ounce serving.) One would have to consume at least 34 Starbucks Lattes at a clip to reach the threshold for a fatal overdose. More likely, however, are cases of caffeine poisoning, of which there were 3,328 in the U.S. in 2011.

Yet last June, the Mayo Clinic published a study that found “a positive association between coffee consumption and all-cause mortality…in men and women younger than 55 years.” The findings were not without detractors. USA Today interviewed Gregg Fonarow, co-chief of clinical cardiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, who said, “Differences in other dietary factors, marital status and other socioeconomic factors that were not adjusted for in this study may account for some or all of these observations.”

But even if one does not ingest it to the point of poisoning or death, caffeine can still have a deleterious effect on the body: “increases in heart rate, blood pressure, speech rate, motor activity, attentiveness, gastric secretion, diuresis, and temperature.… Caffeine can increase anxiety in those with anxiety disorders, and it is known also to play a role in triggering arrhythmias.”


In recent years, food manufacturers have added caffeine to just about everything: energy drinks, chewing gum, jelly beans, marshmallows, sunflower seeds, instant oatmeal and even sugar-laden syrup.

Last May, the FDA announced it would “investigate the safety of caffeine in food products, particularly its effects on children and adolescents.” Then, in June, the American Medical Association adopted a policy to encourage a ban on the marketing of energy drinks to adolescents under the age of 18 due to the drinks’ “surge in popularity in recent years, especially among high school and college students….”

In fact, research shows that 30 to 50 percent of adolescents and young adults consume energy drinks. The authors of the study wrote, “Frequently containing high and unregulated amounts of caffeine, these drinks have been reported in association with serious adverse effects, especially in children, adolescents, and young adults with seizures, diabetes, cardiac abnormalities, or mood and behavioral disorders or those who take certain medications.”

I Need My Morning Joe

So how much is OK? The researchers in the Mayo Clinic study recommended people avoid “heavy coffee consumption (i.e., averaging >4 cups per day).” In an interview, Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, noted: “For healthy adults FDA has cited 400 milligrams a day — that’s about four or five cups of coffee — as an amount not generally associated with dangerous, negative effects.”

But be mindful. While physical dependence on caffeine has already been acknowledged by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Addition (DSM-IV), the fifth edition, DSM-V, released last May added “caffeine withdrawal” as a disorder. A “let down effect” occurs after a person drinks as few as two or three cups of coffee at a time. Withdrawal can include symptoms such as headache, fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating and nausea.

Sound familiar?

Debra Cole is a Brooklyn-based writer and mom. She blogs about parenting at www.urbanmoocow.com.

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