According to the FDA, 80 percent of American adults drink caffeine daily. Although caffeine is shown to make the average person perform better in sports and at work because it is a psychoactive substance and a central nervous system stimulant, few people know that caffeine is considered a highly addictive drug. In 1994 a researcher named Dr. Roland Griffiths confirmed for the first time that “Caffeine is the world’s most widely used mind-altering drug”.
Caffeine, a xanthine, has a chemical formula of C8H10N4O2 and is a part of a large group of alkaloids. Caffeine is produced by plants to ward off predators and to cause pollinators to more easily remember and return to the plant because the caffeine gives the animal a beneficial “buzz”. Caffeine is naturally produced in about 60 plant species; the three most common plants that make caffeine are cacao beans, tea leaves, and coffee beans.
Once caffeine enters your body, it is absorbed through the small intestine and dissolved in the bloodstream. From the bloodstream, the caffeine chemical reaches your brain and distributes quickly throughout your body because it is water and fat soluble. Because the caffeine molecule has a similar structure to adenosine, a molecule that is the byproduct of respiration, the caffeine molecule is able to fit into adenosine brain cell receptors, blocking the adenosine from binding to its normal site. When the caffeine molecule is not present, the adenosine binds to the receptors and creates a tired feeling. Therefore, when caffeine molecules are blocking the adenosine it creates a sense of alertness.
The CYP1A2 enzyme controls how fast you are able to break down caffeine. In an average adult the half-life of caffeine lasts about 5 to 6 hours. The caffeine is eliminated from the body when it is metabolized by the liver. After the caffeine is broken down, the adenosine can start binding to the receptors again causing the feeling of alertness to disappear. Regular coffee drinkers build up a tolerance to caffeine because their brain cells start to build more adenosine receptors. To continue to feel the psychoactive effects, the people who have built up a tolerance to the drug need to consume more and more caffeine.
Individual responses to caffeine differ due to genetic variability. One variant of the CYP1A2 gene causes the liver to metabolize caffeine very quickly. People who inherit a copy of the “fast” variant from each parent are called fast metabolizers because their bodies metabolize caffeine four times faster than slow metabolizers, or people who inherit the slow variant of the CYP1A2 gene. Research shows that there are several factors – genetic, demographic and environmental – that contribute to individual differences in sensitivity to caffeine. This study focussed on the genetic factor of caffeine addiction, and they concluded that subjects with lower caffeine metabolism rates consume less coffees daily and are more sensitive to the bitterness of caffeine and coffee.
Caffeine addiction can also be caused by environmental factors. For example, if someone’s family or friends drink coffee they could be pressured to drink coffee because of the social aspect. Additionally, in any office, mall, town, or city, it is almost guaranteed that caffeinated drinks are available. Being surrounded by coffee shops and other caffeinated drink vendors greatly influences a person to start drinking coffee. Another example of caffeine being marketed in society is when caffeinated sports drink companies, such as Red Bull, sponsor famous athletes and sporting events that teens and children admire.
Even though caffeine is considered a highly addictive drug, the United States government does not have many laws impacting the caffeine industry or people who have the addiction. Furthermore, our government has the weakest laws impacting caffeine consumption compared to Australia, New Zealand, England, and Canada. In the US, the FDA allows caffeine to be added to drinks and food as long as it is listed in the ingredients. Nevertheless, companies are not required to include the amount of caffeine that their products contain in the ingredients. Once somebody is strongly addicted and reliant on caffeine and they try to quite, there can be extreme withdrawal symptoms including headaches, sleepiness, irritability, depression, and lack of concentration. Our society offers a few programs to help quit drinking caffeine, many of which are online. Consuming caffeine is rarely looked down upon because it is such a common addiction. I agree that caffeine addiction is not a pressing issue and that there is no need to treat caffeine addicts differently.