Caffeine Factsheet
Committee on Toxicity, Food Standards Agency

.
 

What is caffeine?
People have enjoyed caffeinated beverages for many years. Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance found in the leaves, seeds or fruits of at least 100 different species worldwide and is part of a group of compounds known as methylxanthines. The most commonly known sources of caffeine are coffee, cocoa beans, cola nuts and tea leaves. Caffeine is also added to specifically formulated ‘energy drinks’ and pharmaceutical products such as cold and flu remedies.

What is a safe intake of caffeine?
Up to 300mg/day (6 cups of tea) is considered moderate, with no evidence of harmful effects in the vast majority of the adult population. Some individuals are sensitive to caffeine and will feel effects at smaller doses than other individuals who are less sensitive. For this reason, these individuals may need to limit their caffeine intake.

Caffeine Tolerance
A number of different factors affect individual tolerance to caffeine, including the amount ingested, the frequency of caffeine consumption and individual metabolism. It is widely recognised that gradual tolerance develops with prolonged caffeine use. If regular caffeine consumption is stopped abruptly, symptoms such as headaches, irritability and fatigue may occur. These effects are usually temporary, disappearing after a day or so and can be avoided if caffeine cessation is gradual.

Physiological Effects
Caffeine is a pharmacologically active substance, and depending on the dose, has a number of actions:
- Central Nervous System Stimulant. A moderate caffeine intake can cause mild stimulation that maybe beneficial in terms of increased alertness, concentration, improved performance and decreased fatigue. However, higher intakes may affect sleep, cause nervousness and an irregular heartbeat.
- Weak Bronchodilator. As a result, interest has been shown in its potential role as an asthma treatment. A number of studies have explored the effects of caffeine in asthma and the conclusions from a Cochrane Review suggest that caffeine appears to improve airways function modestly in people with asthma for up to four hours after consumption.
- Diuretic. The diuretic action of caffeine may be due to an increase in renal blood flow, leading to an increased glomerular filtration rate (GFR), or due to a decreased reabsorption of sodium in the renal tubules. The diuretic effect of caffeine is dependent on the amount consumed and duration of intake eg the caffeine in tea does not have a diuretic effect unless the amount of tea consumed at one sitting contains more than 250-300mg of caffeine, equivalent to between 5 and 6 cups of tea.
- Cardiac Muscle Stimulant. Moderate caffeine consumption does not increase cardiac arrhythmias.
- Parkinson’s Disease. Observational studies have suggested that caffeine may play a role in protecting against Parkinson’s disease, although further research is required to determine the exact mechanism.
- Relief of headaches. In a study of 301 regular headache sufferers, researchers found that a combination of ibuprofen and caffeine was better than either drug alone in relieving pain. Although a caffeine ‘pill’ was used in this trial, the researchers believed that caffeinated beverages would work just as well. However, they did warn that chronic headache sufferers should avoid caffeine because it might exacerbate symptoms. More work is required in this field before firm conclusions about caffeine and pain relief can be drawn.
- Pregnancy. Caffeine crosses the placenta and achieves blood and tissue concentrations in the foetus that are similar to maternal concentrations. For this reason recent advice published by the Food Standards Agency recommends that pregnant women should limit their intake of caffeine consumption to less than 300mg/ day (equivalent to 6 cups of tea/day). At this level there is little evidence to suggest that the health of the unborn child or mother is affected.

In Summary…
Despite recent publicity about caffeine, the fact remains that the consumption of caffeine at intakes of 300mg/ day has no adverse effects in the vast majority of the adult population. For this reason an average intake of three to four cups of tea a day is well within the level considered safe.