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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: How much coffee is too much?

Rika Kayama

Coffee lovers, have you been shocked by recent stories in the news media about deaths by caffeine overdose?

    Worry not; the people in those articles are mainly thought to have mixed energy drinks with over-the-counter caffeine pills and other medicine in high doses to help fight off drowsiness, inadvertently poisoning themselves. High caffeine intake of that sort not only leads to headaches and irritability, but also causes stress on the heart, which in rare cases can lead to death. It certainly wasn't a simple cup of coffee that caused their demise.

    Even in my examination room, I have patients who ask with a worried look on their face, "I love coffee, but will I overdose?" To those people, I explain, "As long as you are in good health, having two to three cups a day is no problem. But to guard the quality of your sleep, it's best not to drink coffee in the afternoons."

    "Be careful that you aren't simply drinking coffee as a stimulant to keep you awake, but are instead drinking it for the taste," I also often add. I say this because the effectiveness of caffeine weakens over time, and this leads many people to drink more and more, or to move on to energy drinks or caffeine pills in tandem with their cup of joe just to stay awake.

    I say this, but I also occasionally find myself drinking coffee for the sole purpose of fighting off drowsiness. Drinking something not for the taste, but simply to keep you awake and continue working can't really be called healthy in any case. There's no doubt that the people who suffered from caffeine poisoning were under the same stressful conditions -- unable to avoid late night and early morning duties, they probably continued to increase their caffeine intake as the effects weakened, leading to the deterioration of their health.

    If that is indeed the case, then I feel as though we shouldn't attack those people as having weak resolve. The real problem seems to be those conditions in which people are prevented from sleeping at night and must fight to get up in the morning to continue working.

    One patient told me, "My coffee intake keeps rising, and I even have a few cups in the evening." When I advised they should try taking some time just to enjoy the taste of one cup of coffee after dinner, the patient was surprised. "Ah, I haven't thought about coffee being delicious recently at all," they said. That's sad for the coffee, isn't it?

    "Pretending you are in a fancy cafe in Paris" when you drink coffee is a little too over-the-top to suggest, but try treating each cup like a little fancy treat, maybe even putting on some music as you slowly enjoy your drink. At least if we treat coffee in this fashion, there should be less of a risk of caffeine overdose. I myself am also thinking of graduating soon from the lifestyle of consuming energy drinks and other caffeinated products simply to keep my eyes open. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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