In our caffeine-crazed culture, you’re being targeted with a bizarre array of products that promise you a superhuman jolt. But could this powerful stimulant actually wreak havoc on your health?
Logan Stiner was days away from graduation when a friend at his Ohio high school handed him a bag filled with white powder. Hours later, Logan—a healthy honors student and accomplished wrestler who had recently been crowned prom king—was dead.
But what was inside that bag wasn’t cocaine, and it wasn’t heroin either. It was something perfectly legal—a substance found in hundreds of products at your local grocery store. Logan had ingested a lethal amount of pure, powdered caffeine—probably purchased off the Internet and packaged without a clear warning of its insanely powerful punch. A single teaspoon is roughly equivalent to the amount in 28 cups of coffee, according to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
“I’m sure he thought that since caffeine was something legal that you can buy, it was safe,” says Logan’s mom, Kate Stiner. “When you [lead people] to believe that energy comes from a can or a powder, it can be a death sentence.”
Logan’s case is extreme— the FDA knows of only one other recent death linked to caffeine powder—but it speaks to a troubling trend. Faced with marathon study sessions, jam-packed extracurricular schedules, and early start times at school, teens are being targeted as the next generation of caffeine super-consumers. You're being beckoned to join America’s work-hard, do-it-all culture with sugar-sweetened drinks, neon-colored candies, and—perhaps scariest of all—undeniably poisonous powders.
That’s why it’s critical to understand the fine line between caffeine’s ability to give you a boost—and its potential to sabotage your health.
Our Caffeine Culture
First, the good news: It’s unlikely that one cup of coffee or a single energy drink will put you over the edge. After all, people have been enjoying caffeine for hundreds of years. Legend has it that an Ethiopian goat herder discovered the magical properties of the coffee bean in the 9th century after noticing that his goats danced with wild energy when they ate the berries from a coffee tree. Curious, he tried the beans himself—and felt so invigorated that he began to dance alongside his herd.
Now flash forward to the 21st century. Caffeine is more than just a way to get an occasional boost; it has become an obsession, with a massive industry popping up to make its delivery more efficient and delicious. Coffee shops on every corner sell milkshake-like coffee drinks injected with sugary syrups and topped with candy and whipped cream. Convenience stores stock entire cooler cases with vibrantly packaged varieties of energy-in-a-can.
And now the food industry is adding caffeine to things Mother Nature never intended: granola, sunflower seeds, cookies, fruit juice, lemonade, beef jerky, gummy bears, Cracker Jacks, jelly beans—even ice cream. (One scoop of Bang!!, which comes in a carton that looks like a comic book page, has the same amount of caffeine as an energy drink.)
It’s no wonder that about 90 percent of all Americans—including three out of four teens—ingest caffeine daily.
The Buzz On Caffeine
To fully understand caffeine’s impact on your concentration and performance, it helps to think of yourself as a spider tasked to spin a web. (Stick with us here.) Running purely on your own natural fuel—a good night’s rest and a balanced meal—that web would probably be a masterpiece. Skimp on sleep and lean on too much caffeine, however, and you’re looking at a totally chaotic, completely haphazard creation. (This isn’t just a random analogy—NASA actually studied spiders under caffeine’s influence! See “Cool Science,” below.)
Yes, when even your younger sister is allowed a Coke or Pepsi here and there, it can be easy to forget that caffeine is a drug. But it is a drug—a powerful stimulant. And while a little of it (in a can of Mountain Dew or a small caramel frappé) may make you feel focused, too much can send your mind and body into overdrive.
That’s because caffeine acts on a neurotransmitter floating around in your brain called adenosine. This brain chemical’s duty is to help regulate your bodily systems to keep them from working too hard, but caffeine blocks adenosine from doing its job.
“It’s like you’re cutting the wire to the alarm bell that tells your body it’s getting burnt out and that you need to rest,” explains James Lane, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist from Duke University who studies caffeine.
So instead of resting when you’re tired, your body—running on caffeine—does the opposite. It begins releasing stress hormones that put your body into hyper-alert, “fight-or-flight” mode, making it harder to sit still, concentrate, and control your impulses. You could become cranky and overly anxious too.
In fact, temporary “caffeine intoxication” is listed in the mental health manual, the DSM-5, right alongside other psychiatric disorders.
Maybe you’ve even been there but didn’t realize what was happening: heart pounding, head whirling, palms sweaty, legs restless, stomach gurgling. All you want to do is finish your English paper, then sleep—but it’s too late. You’re amped up.
And all that extra energy isn’t being channeled into a killer conclusion paragraph; it’s making your mind race so fast you can barely string together a sentence.
A Vicious Cycle
Alyssa Biederman, 16, started drinking coffee regularly in ninth grade because her Marlton, N.J., high school started extremely early. But she soon noticed a problem: “I’ll go to bed like normal, and even if I’m tired, I can’t turn off my brain,” she says.
Exhausted the following day, Alyssa needs more caffeine to make it through, and that keeps her up the next night. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she explains.
Caffeine is sneaky, experts say, in that even an early afternoon dose may affect your sleep at night—it can stay in your system for up to 12 hours, depending on how quickly your body metabolizes it.
If you regularly consume caffeine like Alyssa, however, research shows you’re also getting less R.E.M. sleep. That’s the deep sleep your body needs to process everything you learned that day.
“Energy-drink makers like to claim that their products make you more alert and focused,” says Dr. Steven Lipshultz, the pediatrician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. “But because you’re missing out on that R.E.M. sleep, you may actually wind up less able to remember things.”
The real danger, though, is that experts still aren’t sure how much caffeine is too much for teens. Even in very low doses, caffeine affects blood pressure and heart rate, but for some young people—including those on ADHD medications or those who have medical conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart problems-—it would take only a tiny amount to send them to the hospital.
In fact, the FDA (which monitors and regulates the safety of food and health products) has received numerous reports of caffeine overdoses, injuries, and deaths, and a government study found that emergency-room visits related to energy drinks and energy shots doubled from 2007 to 2011.
Many of those patients, it turns out, were young people.
Spreading the Word
The FDA is investigating whether it needs new rules to govern caffeine in foods, but the agency has been most outspoken about pure powdered caffeine, like the type Logan ingested.
In September, it issued a statement warning consumers to avoid the powder. “Pure caffeine is a powerful stimulant, and very small amounts may cause accidental overdose,” the agency said. “It is nearly impossible to accurately measure pure powdered caffeine with common kitchen measuring tools. You can easily consume a lethal amount.”
That warning came too late for Logan, who would have been studying chemical engineering at the University of Toledo. Now Logan’s mom is working to spread the word about the dangers of caffeine.
She says that she had often talked to Logan about the dangers of illegal drugs—even making him watch a video of someone overdosing on heroin, foaming at the mouth—so he could see firsthand the ugliness of drug addiction. But it never occurred to her to have that same kind of conversation about caffeine.
“When we first found the bag of powder, we were all trying to figure out what it was,” she says, still in disbelief. “It wasn’t cocaine. It wasn’t heroin. It was caffeine—something that was totally legal.”