What Are Caffeine Pills—And Are They Safe?
They may be an inexpensive way to get a buzz, but beware of the side effects.
As a student, I know caffeine pills run rampant on college campuses. Since we’re always on the go, popping a pill can be far more convenient than waiting in line for a cup of coffee.
Caffeine pills are easily accessible, portable, and cheap. You can buy a 100-count bottle of 200-milligram pills on Amazon or at your local pharmacy for as little as $6.55, and they're tiny enough to tuck away in any backpack. So it’s not surprising that college students rely on them to overcome morning fatigue, stave off an afternoon slump, or pull all-nighters.
Though there’s no denying the burst of energy you get from caffeine pills, the question is, are they healthy? Here's what you need to know.
What are caffeine pills?
As many people know, caffeine is a stimulant that acts on the central nervous system—nerves, brain and spinal cord—to make you feel more awake and alert.
Caffeine pills can be made of natural or synthetic caffeine. Some products may also contain inactive ingredients, such as fillers, coloring agents, emulsifiers, and other additives, says Rachel Link, RD, a nutritionist based in New York City.
Cynthia Sass, RD, Health nutrition editor, says while every type of pill is made differently, most have between 100 and 200 milligrams of caffeine. That’s less than a 20-ounce cup of Starbucks Dark Roast brewed coffee, which has about 340 milligrams. It’s more than a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, which has 34 milligrams. And it’s just about on par with a 16-ounce can of Monster Energy, which has 160 milligrams.
What’s the difference between caffeine pills and coffee?
There are a few significant differences between caffeine pills and coffee. Caffeine pills are “more accessible or portable than coffee, and some people don't like the taste of coffee or tea,” Sass says.
Because coffee can be so bitter, people often add creamer and sweetener. Popping a pill avoids the sugar shock and taste of coffee altogether. It’s also calorie free, which may be the appeal, Sass reasons.
Sometimes “coffee can also irritate the digestive tract” and “trigger heartburn,” says Link, which is why caffeine pills appeal to some people.
Coffee “enters the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine and can have a stimulating effect as soon as 15 minutes after it is consumed,” according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Caffeine pills hit you faster since you take a caffeine supplement all at once, says Julie Upton, RD, co-founder of Appetite for Health in the San Francisco Bay area. And the caffeine crash can hit you harder since the pills “contain a more concentrated dose of caffeine than other drinks,” says Link.
Many caffeinated beverages contain beneficial compounds in addition to caffeine. For example, L-theanine, which is found in tea, helps to prevent adverse side effects of caffeine, says Link. Because caffeine pills lack these compounds, they increase a person’s risk of suffering from negative side effects, explains Link.
How much caffeine is too much?
Any amount of caffeine can be too much if it upsets your stomach, makes your heart race, causes you to lose sleep, or stokes other unpleasant side effects. It depends on how sensitive you are to caffeine's effects and how quickly you break down the drug.
For a healthy adult, up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day is considered a safe amount, according to the FDA. This is the same as about four or five cups of coffee. Consuming higher doses can be risky for women who are pregnant or nursing; children and adolescents; and people with a chronic illness or disease, since certain conditions and medications can make people more sensitive and vulnerable to the effects of caffeine, the FDA points out.
Caffeine can be toxic if you take in too much too quickly. Serious effects, including seizures, have been linked to rapid consumption of about 1,200 milligrams, the FDA reports.
“The dangers are especially concerning if caffeine is taken in higher doses, combined with other stimulants, or under certain conditions, like existing high blood pressure,” Sass says.
Several years ago, when energy drinks became all the rage, emergency departments began seeing patients who had consumed too much. Tens of thousands of people were seen for caffeine-related complications. A study on the effect of energy drinks found that most cases were due to excessive consumption in a short time period or when ingested with other stimulants, like alcohol.
In recent years, the FDA has slapped several manufacturers with warnings over pure and highly concentrated caffeine in liquid or powder forms. Such products have contributed to at least two deaths in the U.S.
What should you do if you have caffeine side effects?
High doses of caffeine can cause chills, agitation, dizziness, headache, vomiting, nausea, fainting, indigestion, lightheadedness, and seizures, according to the Mayo Clinic. You should check with your doctor immediately if any of these symptoms occur. You should get emergency help immediately if you show signs of overdose, which include irritability, nervousness, rapid heartbeat, and trouble sleeping. Other side effects, like a rash or dry skin, can occur but do not require medical attention.
What if it’s just a case of caffeine jitters? For minor caffeine ingestion, supportive measures, like drinking water and talking a walk, can help, Link suggests. More severe cases may require intravenous hydration or medications to treat irregular heart rhythm, for example. In life-threatening situations, dialysis may be the best option.
So, are caffeine pills safe?
Even though consuming up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day is generally considered safe, it doesn’t mean it’s a healthy habit. It is possible to develop a dependence on caffeine pills, says Ryan D. Andrews, MS, RD, author of A Guide to Plant-Based Eating.
Sass and Link don’t recommend them because, they say, the risks outweigh the benefits. It’s much easier to consume too much caffeine, and caffeine supplements don’t provide the same beneficial compounds.
If you decide you want to try caffeine pills anyway, speak with your doctor first about whether or not they are the right way for you to get a caffeine fix.
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