Caffeine is one of the world’s most widely used drugs. It’s found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, cola drinks, chocolate, fermented beverages (kombucha), and some dietary supplements and medications.
Caffeine is a stimulant, increasing activity in your brain and nervous system. In small doses it can make you feel more alert, awake, clear-minded and able to concentrate. In large doses, it can make you feel anxious or have difficulty sleeping.
How much caffeine is OK?
The effects from caffeine are felt within 5–30 minutes of having it and can last for 4–6 hours.
Research suggests 400 mg per day is acceptable for most people, but it does depend on your body size and metabolism. The Ministry of Health recommends having no more than 7 cups of tea or instant coffee per day or 3 single shot espresso coffees per day.
Image: MOH, Eating and Activity Guidelines for Adults, 2020
Pregnant and breastfeeding women, children and athletes
Pregnant women – it’s recommended that you limit caffeine intake to below 200mg per day during pregnancy and that you avoid energy drinks. Having large amounts of caffeine during pregnancy may increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and having a baby with low birthweight. 200 mg of caffeine is found in 4 cups of tea or 1 espresso.
Breastfeeding women – can drink caffeine in moderation. Some babies may be sensitive and a large amount can cause your baby to be stimulated or have poor sleep. It’s recommended that you limit your caffeine to no more than 6 cups of tea or instant coffee (or 3 single shot espressos) per day.
Children – it’s recommended that children/tamariki are not given tea, coffee or energy drinks as it can affect their sleep or lead to dehydration.
Athletes – some studies suggest caffeine ingestion prior to exercise can improve performance and focus for athletes. Consult with your GP if you are taking caffeine supplements regularly, do not exceed the recommended limit of 40mg per day and be aware of the side effects.
How do I know if I'm having too much caffeine?
Some people are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than others. Signs of having too much caffeine are:
- Poor sleep. If so, avoid caffeine after 4pm or earlier.
- Headaches or dizziness.
- Fast or abnormal heart beat.
- Feeling jittery, irritable or shaky.
- Heartburn. Caffeine increases the release of acid in your stomach, sometimes leading to an upset stomach or heartburn.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Anxiety and/or panic attacks which can be triggered or made worse by caffeine.
- Dehydration. Caffeine is a diuretic, meaning it makes your body lose more water. So, drinks that contain caffeine are not good if you are thirsty, exercising or working in the heat.
- Interactions with some medicines. Check with your pharmacist or doctor to see if the medicines you are taking could interact with caffeine.
Caffeine dependency and withdrawal
It’s possible to build a tolerance to caffeine, so your body gets used to the effects and you may need to take larger amounts to achieve the same results. If you are dependant on caffeine and you stop having it, you may experience fatigue, headaches or irritability. The easiest way to break caffeine dependency is to reduce the amount you’re having gradually. It may take between 1 and 7 days.
To curb your caffeine habit, try decaf tea or coffee, or herbal teas that don’t contain caffeine.
Caffeine overdose and alcohol
- Caffeine overdose is dangerous and can kill you. People have died from too much caffeine including a 19-year-old college student who died after taking an overdose of caffeine tablets to stay awake.
- Caffeine doesn't reduce breath or blood alcohol concentrations, so it doesn't get rid of the effects of alcohol.
- Mixing alcohol with energy drinks is dangerous as the caffeine masks the depressant effects of alcohol. As a result you may drink more alcohol and become more impaired than you realise.
Freedman ND, Park Y, Abnet CC, et al. Association of coffee drinking with total and cause specific mortality New Eng J Med. 2012;366:1891-904.
Allan MG, Korownyk C, Mannarino, M. Tools for Practice – coffee - advice for our vice? Canadian Fam Phys. March 2013;59:26
Caffeine Food Standards Australia NZ
Caffeine Medline Plus, US
Eating and activity guidelines for New Zealand adults Ministry of Health, NZ, 2020
Caffeine Food Standards Australia NZ, 2021
|Amanda Buhaets works as a liaison dietitian for the Auckland District Health Board. Her role includes supporting primary care and public health programmes with up-to-date nutrition information. She has a special interest in child health and supporting health professionals to have successful conversations to whānau about health and lifestyle.|