Tea Talk and Caffeine

Last time we discussed some of the ins and out of Camellia sinensis, one of the world’s favourite beverages - Tea.  Tea comes in a variety of forms including green, black and oolong, along with the less well known white and pu-erh teas.  These different beverages come from the same plant and vary in their properties based on when the leaves are harvested and processed.  One important component of tea is caffeine.  

Caffeine is found in a number of plant species that aren’t related including tea Camellia sinensis, coffee Coffea spp, mate Ilex paraguariensis and kola Cola acuminata.  Caffeine is a phytochemical (an organic chemical found in plants) and is categorized as a purine alkaloid, specifically a methylxanthine.  Alkaloids are a large group of phytochemicals that range quite dramatically in their actions and properties. The main classification factor that ties alkaloids together is that they all possess at least one nitrogen molecule.  Other examples of alkaloids besides caffeine are nicotine, heroin, cocaine  - all very addictive substances with potential to cause death through overdose.  Other alkaloids like those found in Atropa belladonna, or deadly nightshade (a common plant in our area) can also be fatal if ingested.  Still other alkaloids are used in indigenous culture for visionary quests and psycho-spiritual healing.

Last time I shared some of the benefits of tea like the toning effect on digestion, the anti-cancer benefits  and liver detoxifying effects of green tea.  So what about caffeine?  All these teas have caffeine in them, with black tea having the highest amount.  Is caffeine good for you or bad for you, or is it a neutral kind of thing?  As with most things, it depends. 

Caffeine is a nervous system stimulant.  This means it tells your nervous system to ‘GO’ and get fired up.  What we understand more and more is that your nervous system is intricately connected to the endocrine system, or hormonal system.  In fact it’s probably more appropriate to say the neuro-endocrine system because how we respond emotionally (hormonal production) to our environment (what our senses like smell and sight perceive) is an intricate interplay between these two systems.  

Lots of people out there are ‘stressed’; perhaps they are working a bit beyond their capacity, are dealing with a difficult employer, have financial stress, grew up with abuse, poverty or alcoholism in their home and are therefore primed to be stressed, or have chronic illness.  When we are ‘stressed’ we are keyed up to respond via our flight, fight or freeze reactions and, if occurring chronically, this causes elevations in hormones like cortisol which can increase our risk of illnesses, including colds, flus and inflammation, cause insomnia, irritability and high blood pressure, and make it more difficult to deal with emotional challenges like anxiety.  Also these things usually make us tired.  Often in order to address these types of health problems we have to get the nervous system to fully relax and get out of the flight or fight mode of operation - which is another way of resting our bodies and minds.  In most of these cases caffeine isn’t our friend since it’s firing us up rather than relaxing us.  

It can be surprising how strong of an effect caffeine has on the body, and often you won’t know the difference until you haven’t had any for 4-7 days.  If you are drinking 3 cups of regular black tea per day you are consuming approximately 35-90mg of caffeine per cup  (105-270mg/day).  If you’re really brewing your tea up then you can expect there to be more caffeine per cup.  Regularly brewed coffee is about 150mg per cup.  In pregnancy it is recommended not to consume more than 300mg per day as it associated with increased risk of spontaneous miscarriage.  Green tea has less caffeine than black tea with about 25-45mg per cup. Don’t forget about the colas - they contain about 40mg of caffeine per can of pop.

Caffeine also has documented effects on the bladder. In one study, patients consumed 4.5mg of caffeine per kg of body weight causing an increase in symptoms of overactive bladder including increased frequency of urination and urge to void sooner than without caffeine.  If you weigh 115lb, you are 52.3kg, which means you would be consuming 234mg of caffeine in this study.  Caffeine can build up in the body as well, making the amount necessary to consume to experience symptoms less depending on the individual.  If you have any bladder issues, high blood pressure or sleep problems, I would recommend trying to go without caffeine to see how it helps. If you’re fatigued or stressed and needing caffeine, I recommended getting assessed by an ND to address how you can function better with requiring a stimulant.  For many people taking a caffeine break is helpful by allowing you to get to know yourself in a more relaxed state; this is important to understand how a substance like caffeine is affecting you so you can make a clear choice about how much is ok and how much is too much for you.