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What is Caffeine?

Michael Pollick
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Chemically speaking, pure caffeine is a plant-based alkaloid which stimulates the central nervous system of any creature that ingests it. In nature, it serves as a form of pest control for certain plants such as cacao trees, coffee shrubs, yerba mate and tea trees. The caffeine causes insects and other pests to collapse from the effects of over-stimulation.

Caffeine, also known as guaranine, mateine or theine depending on the source plant, is considered a psychoactive drug. However, it has not been designated a controlled substance, so its use in teas, coffees and sodas is not illegal. Coffee beans contain a significant amount, while tea leaves and yerba mate plants contain less. Cocoa beans also contain caffeine, but they contain much higher levels of another alkaloid called theobromine.

When caffeine is removed from the source plant and reduced to its most natural state, it forms a white powder. This powdered form is actually the scientific definition of bitter, which is why many beverages containing caffeine also contain copious amounts of sugar or other sweeteners. That contained in stimulant pills such as No-Doz is not diluted with sugar, so the pills can be very bitter indeed.

Caffeine may not be addictive in the classic sense, but the body does build up a tolerance over time. Some people find it difficult to function without at least one cup of strong coffee or tea in the morning. The stimulating effects are caused by a central nervous reaction. The heart rate increases, blood vessels constrict, and air passages relax. This effect can last up to an hour.

There is such a thing as caffeine withdrawal. Regular consumers of coffee or sodas may experience painful headaches if the body is denied caffeine. Without the stimulation provided by this alkaloid, the blood vessels open, increasing the flow of blood. The traditional cure for withdrawal is to ingest more caffeine. This is also why many headache medications contain small amounts.

It would be very difficult to consume enough caffeine for a lethal overdose, although some deaths have been reported. One would have to drink several hundred cups of coffee or ingest at least 75 tablets to reach toxic levels, however. Taking several Vivarin or No-Doz stimulants to increase mental awareness should not be harmful in the long term, but there may be a sudden crash as the drug's effects wear off. So keep the all-night study sessions or long distance drives to a minimum if you don't want to experience the dark side of the drug.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By anon127748 — On Nov 17, 2010

why is caffeine used?

By anon124543 — On Nov 06, 2010

what are street names for caffeine and is it illegal?

By anon87723 — On Jun 01, 2010

the amount of caffeine is restricted in athletes by the ioc.

By anon73157 — On Mar 25, 2010

there's no limit or restrictions on caffeine consumption in athletes. however it is extremely dangerous because it sets your resting heart rate higher than normal and puts you at risk of a heart attack, liver failure, stomach ulcers, etc.

By anon73156 — On Mar 25, 2010

in my area the guys call caffeine Fein, Caff, happy juice, party starter, all nighter, RB, V, Ma. that's all the ones i can think of, but i'm sure there's more

By anon61657 — On Jan 21, 2010

what happens when you have too much caffeine? Do you die?

By anon54541 — On Nov 30, 2009

Why is this true?

By anon49529 — On Oct 21, 2009

my class is going to do a experiment on caffeine and i was wondering if anyone else was doing any and if so which one to do?

By anon47568 — On Oct 05, 2009

i am doing a report and i need basic information about caffeine. i am 10 and in the fifth grade.

By anon32879 — On May 28, 2009

what does it do to you? and don't want to hear it helps... bla bla

By anon9230 — On Mar 02, 2008

Is the use of caffeine limited in athletic competition?

By anon7953 — On Feb 05, 2008

what is the effect that caffeine has on people these days??

By anon164 — On Apr 17, 2007

What are some street names for caffeine,(if any)?

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick

Writer

As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
Learn more
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