On the one hand, you’re a reasonable person who’s well aware that too much of anything is bad for you. But on the other, reasonably speaking, if you don’t drink five cups of coffee you’re going to shrivel up like a slug before drowning in roiling, exploding headaches. You need coffee to live — but you also still want to, well, live. What’s a person to do?
If you have some skepticism going into this article, we don’t blame you: Just last month, coffee was good for you, but this month, who the heck knows? Coffee is like booze — every new study contradicts the last one. With that in mind, let’s start with some news that we can at least be certain of: Last year, an otherwise healthy 16-year-old South Carolina high school student died from heart problems after drinking too much coffee.
Now, he also chugged an energy drink and a sugary soda, but the point is, he died from an overdose of caffeine.
So exactly how much is too much?
“Research indicates that ingesting too much caffeine — anywhere between 500 to 600 milligrams, or five or more cups of coffee a day — can cause adverse effects,” says registered dietician Jennifer Markowitz. Although according to Food Standards Australia New Zealand, a regular “flat white” (similar to a small latte or cappuccino) could have as much as 282 milligrams of caffeine in one serving, so take the five cups advice with a pinch of cinnamon dust.
This is concerning to me because I’m an espresso man, and I usually hum along like a German engine on about two to three espressos a day. So let’s assess the damage from drinking too much — possibly nearly 900 milligrams, if our Antipodean friends are correct — of the best part of waking up:
- If you’re hearing things, that’s the coffee speaking. According to a study by the University of Melbourne, coffee is “the most commonly used psychoactive drug,” and drinking more than five cups a day can cause auditory hallucinations.
- Say goodbye to your liver. According to studies by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, while moderate amounts of coffee can help the liver to detoxify the body, too much can have the opposite effect and hinder your liver’s function.
- It can raise your blood pressure. That’s according to a Carnegie Mellon study, which also says that coffee can stimulate the heart and cause shallow breathing.
- It can help you NOT sleep. “This varies from person to person, depending on how well your body can process caffeine,” explains Markowitz. “Coffee has a six-hour half life, so it takes 24 hours to work its way through your system (on average).
- It can weaken your bones and increase your risk of osteoporosis. This is according to research by the Oregon State University. To combat this, make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D and calcium when you’re drinking coffee.
- It’s addictive. Which means you will experience withdrawals. Symptoms start about 12 to 24 hours after your last cup, according to the American Heart Association, and can take the form of increased irritability and headaches.
- Like sex, it can mess with your stream. A study from the University of Alabama showed that in some men and women, drinking coffee exacerbated bladder problems that already existed.
Last but not least, when it comes to your teeth, just one cup of java is enough to stain and damage those pearly whites. “Like any drink that isn’t water, coffee helps the bacteria in your mouth to create acids that can lead to tooth and enamel erosion,” explains Markowitz. “This can cause your teeth to become thin and brittle. Coffee can also cause bad breath because it sticks to the tongue.”
So what have we learned, fellow drinker of warm, tar-colored liquid?
In all honesty, probably nothing that will stop us slurping down our morning companion until our fingers start to tingle.
But you can’t say we didn’t try.