Is Your Teen Hooked on Caffeine?

Illustration by Agnieszka Szatkowska

A few months ago, Toronto teen Caitlin Hall had a secret stash in her locker, just in case she needed a fix during her school day. Her drug? Trimethylxanthine. You may know it by its street name: caffeine.

“At the beginning of the school year, I was drinking a lot of coffee, before school and even during school. I kept a jar of instant coffee in my locker, although I didn’t have milk, so I’d have it plain—which was gross,” explains the 17-year-old who has been drinking coffee for about three years. Hall says she needed its energy-boosting benefits to get back into the swing of her busy school routine. And after school, Hall would consume one or two energy drinks to maintain her flagging focus during homework.

Many adults are familiar with this routine—but health experts say teens need to educate themselves about caffeine.

Your Teen on Caffeine
“Caffeine can improve attention, but it also increases blood pressure and causes sleep disturbances,” says Dr. Danielle Taddeo, a Montreal pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine. “Stimulants like caffeine can have side effects like nervousness, anxiety, headaches, nausea, diarrhea and vertigo,” she says, adding that in rare instances, complications can even include “(heart) arrhythmia, seizures, hallucinations, even death.” Are such outcomes common? Definitely not. But teens with pre-existing cardiac problems or who are taking a psychostimulant medication (such as Ritalin or Adderall) are at risk.

Side Effects of Caffeine Consumption
Although there are no comprehensive stats on teen caffeine consumption, one U.S. study of 100 adolescents aged 12 to 18 found 73 percent of them do consume more than 100 mg of caffeine per day. Much of this consumption comes in the form of energy drinks (the fastest-growing category in Canada’s soft drink market) as well as super-sweet iced coffees, trendy sports drinks, chocolate bars and (of course!) pop.

Besides the previously mentioned side effects, there are other health concerns, such as dehydration since caffeine has diuretic properties (leading to increased urinary output) when consumed in large amounts. Caffeine may even have a causal link to osteoporosis. “Caffeine interferes with intestinal calcium absorption. It remains controversial whether caffeine itself has a marked effect on bone acquisition during adolescence or whether replacement of milk intake by caffeinated beverages is the leading contributor,” says Dr. Taddeo. Finally, caffeine seldom travels solo. Most caffeinated items contain lots of sugar too, contributing to tooth decay—not to mention the youth obesity crisis.

How to Cut Back on Caffeine
The good news is caffeine is safe in moderation. So how much can your teen safely consume? Dr. Taddeo cites Health Canada’s recommendation of no more than 2.5 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. So for a teen who weighs 125 pounds (57 kg), that works out to about 140 mg per day—roughly one coffee or one regular energy drink. It’s important for teens to self-monitor how much they’re consuming, however, says Dr. Taddeo, as a coffee, a chocolate bar and an energy drink in one day can equal as much as 200 mg of caffeine. This is still below the recommended maximum adult caffeine intake of 400 mg per day, which may not be appropriate for lower-weight teens or for those who are still growing.

Regular use of caffeine can make you physically dependent, so if quitting cold turkey or tapering off, your teen may experience common but temporary withdrawal symptoms like headaches, irritability and difficulty concentrating. Hall, for one, has successfully reduced her caffeine intake. Today, moderation is her motto. As for that emergency jar of instant? It’s now stashed in the back of her locker.

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