Getting Through High School with a Legal Buzz?
OK, now that I have your attention… Generations of teenagers have transitioned to adulthood with a deep appreciation of coffee, tea and soft drinks. As a Southerner, I can tell you that children were given a little “coffee milk” now and then. In many Asian and some European cultures, children customarily drink tea. It’s nothing new.
But a 20-ounce coffee? Caffeine in gum, candy, even marshmallows? Energy drinks with caffeine, plus stimulant herbs? Countless mocha-flavored bars and ice creams? What if a child is being treated for ADHD, depression, or anxiety? This is the modern context for an old tradition.
August was a busy month for caffeine and energy drinks within this modern context, including meetings at the Institutes of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). With caffeine showing up at higher levels and in more foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is calling on the food industry to practice restraint in developing caffeinated products that may be appealing to children and teens. Some of the information shared at these summer meetings may surprise you, some are just common sense.
- Caffeine is basically safe for healthy adults when we don’t go overboard.
- Caffeine is not child’s play. New questions about safety are mostly about who may be most at risk for negative effects of caffeine — children and teens are on that list, partly because smaller bodies can handle less caffeine. Is the developing child or adolescent brain particularly vulnerable to stimulants? Possibly, but the research is conflicting. What if a teen has a heart condition, but doesn’t know it yet? Or is being treated for ADHD? Lots of unanswered questions.
- Watch out for promises of athletic performance or weight loss. As a stimulant, caffeine can help endurance, but it’s only been tested in adults. It’s NOT a fat burner, nor does it curb appetite. Preliminary research suggests that, while caffeine alone does not increase body temperature, it may do so when consumed with carbohydrates — this could be dangerous with exercise, especially in hot conditions. For kids heading to college, know that caffeine is a banned substance in NCAA sports.
- Caffeine will not replace sleep. Sleep is a requirement for health and for proper physical and mental performance. This goes for stimulant herbs that are caffeine-free, as well, no matter how many cups, shots, or pills, no matter when or how you consume them. (I know this is common sense, but I needed to hear it again.)
- Caffeine intake may be a symptom of a bigger problem of sleep deprivation. Even if small amounts of caffeine are safe for healthy children and teens, sleep deprivation is not healthy or safe at any age. It’s a reality for many adults and teens who are driving cars or working at jobs where falling asleep could have tragic results and for those who are trying to learn in a classroom without falling asleep.
- Teens actually don’t need more sleep, they need later sleep. From 10 to 20 years of age, the midpoint of sleep shifts from midnight to 5am. The brain architecture is also changing, so that transitioning from sleep to awake takes longer. Add to this the social pressures to both stay awake later and get up earlier: later extracurricular activities, more homework, electronic devices in bedrooms, less parental enforcement of bed time, the earliest start times of all K-12 students and often the furthest to travel to school. Who wouldn’t need a jolt of caffeine in the morning?
A controversial idea has been raised: that caffeine intake is associated with the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other recreational drugs. While some studies have noted these associations exist, I haven’t seen evidence to convince me that caffeine is some sort of gateway drug. The more meaningful question for me as a parent, and as a dietitian providing care to teen clients, is how to encourage healthful behaviors that reduce a child’s desire or need for an artificial buzz, whether legal or not.