In my clinical work, I’ve seen many changes over the years. One of them is the consumption of caffeinated beverages as a ‘normal’ and even expected part of high school life. Most of my patients (and their parents) come into clinic visits with a beverage in hand. This varies from a latte to energy drinks. With the health of my patients in mind, I often wonder if this is safe.

Caffeine has many side effects: increased alertness, increased ability to concentrate are the reasons most adults drink coffee or tea in the morning (I usually do)! But there are some negative effects as well: jitteriness, heart palpitations, diarrhea, insomnia, muscle tremors. It can also lead to an irregular heart rhythm (cardiac arrhythmia) and even death. With many beverages and foods (like chocolate) containing caffeine, how much is too much? Turns out this question isn’t so simple. Everyone metabolizes caffeine differently. For children, it’s recommended caffeine be avoided completely, but for everyone else, the exact amount is a bit harder to pin down.

It’s thought that up to 400mg per day for an adult could be safe (about 4 large cups of coffee), but if you rarely drink coffee, even that could be too much. The recent death of a teen from caffeine consumption is making me take a hard look at how I counsel my patients (and friends and family members) about the dangers of too much caffeine.

Here are some tips for teens on caffeine intake:

  1. Limit caffeine to just a treat. Instead of a cup of coffee to get your day started, work on sleep hygiene and a good bedtime routine. Turn off electronics (yes, this includes the cell phone) an hour before sleep and try to go to bed and get up around the same time each day. In general, teens need 8-10 hours of sleep.
  2. Don’t drink energy drinks. Energy drinks (including ‘energy water’) can contain up to 200mg of caffeine and a significant amount of sugar.
  3. Avoid sugary beverages. A cola now and then is ok, but avoid drinking sugary drinks (like soda). Even non-cola sodas can contain caffeine (including the fruity ones and root beer). Plus regular drinking of sugary beverages is associated with increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
  4. Don’t use diet pills. Diet pills contain a number of things that medical providers recommend avoiding, but one of them is a high amount of caffeine. If you want to make healthy changes, instead talk to your medical provider and nutritionist for guidance on eating balanced meals and increasing your daily movement (exercise, walking, dancing, etc).