Need a Boost?

The student arrives at school and approaches the double doors. In a zombie-like state, he trudges to the cafeteria and falls into his seat. He removes a neon-green aluminum can from his bag, takes a sip, and feels immediate relief from the preceding late night.

In a world of stressed-out and over-burdened high school students, the need for energy has never been greater. While some students try their best to obtain it naturally, others have found a solution in the many caffeine products that companies now market heavily towards younger generations. For many students, this can seem like the perfect solution to late nights, but researchers have yet to discover the long-term effects, and many professionals are concerned about the effects and implications that this mass consumption of caffeine products may have on our younger generations.

“You have to start with, ‘What is caffeine?’” said Dr. Wesley Fiser ’03, a cardiologist at Arkansas Cardiology. “It is a molecule that works on adenosine receptors and that primarily has an effect on the central nervous system. It increases stimulation in the central nervous system through blocking adenosine pathways which has an effect on both the heart speed and contractility and also increases blood pressure.”

Youth today utilize these effects for many purposes ranging from studying for a test to having a good workout. Senior Reid Johnson started regularly using caffeine in the form of energy drinks to fuel his early morning duck hunts, but this occasional use soon turned into a necessity before each of his daily workouts. “I think that I became used to drinking them so often,” said Johnson, “and started to rely on the boost from [the energy drinks] rather than things like sleep or a good meal before. Over time, I also noticed that it would sometimes take two energy drinks or one plus a cup of coffee to get that same jolt.”

In addition to regular people using it for an energy boost, caffeine has now rooted itself in the lives of athletes although medical professionals still question its perceived effects. While the belief among athletes and fitness gurus alike is that caffeine grants a surefire increase in muscle power and endurance, there is still only mixed data on if it does increase these muscular functions. 

Many health professionals agree that caffeine usage among younger generations has experienced an unpredicted and rapid increase over the past two decades and assign the blame for this phenomenon to many new factors. “In this day and age,” said Dr. Fiser, “we have ready availability to things that are like energy drinks that are everywhere and are targeted and marketed towards a younger population. That is a huge industry. We are flooded with [caffeine advertisements], they are right in your face all of the time and why is there demand? Well, let us think about this year, we are in a situation where a lot of learning and work is done sitting at a desk in front of a screen all day long, and [the brain] is not stimulated in a more comprehensive way as you would in normal work or school day and so you are looking for something to help you stay a little more acute and sharp, and that may be in the form of an energy drink or caffeine.” 

Despite its prevalence, the safety of caffeine usage among adolescents is still a hot topic of discussion in medical and nutritional circles. “[Caffeine] is a well-known substance that people use worldwide,” said Dr. Fiser. “The problem is how does that translate into teen bodies that are still in development, that is a population that hasn’t been studied as much in terms of the effects of caffeine. In the younger developing body, the risks and benefits of [caffeine] are still somewhat unknown. I don’t think that there are different effects that adults, but certainly the dosing matters. You can reach a toxicity level much quicker in younger, smaller people.

“I worry about its use among adolescents and teenagers, specifically as [adolecents] are targeted by the marketing of the whole thing. From a cardiovascular standpoint, it may have long-term consequences that we just don’t know yet. We are within one of the first one or two generations of this being so prevalent among young people, so I do worry about what the long-term consequences of that are. “

While some teenagers trust the safety of caffeine for everyday use, others veer to the side of total abstinence. Junior CJ Matthews is in the top five of his class rankings and on the fitness, track, and cross country teams. He singly-handily proves that caffeine is in no way a necessity for excelling in academics or athletics. “I haven’t found it necessary to use caffeine,” said Matthews. “I try to get my energy by aiming for seven hours of sleep, eating a well-balanced diet with minimal junk food sprinkled in, and exercising at least two times a day. This has worked out well for me so far, so I see no reason to risk my health for a slight advantage.”

“I think that if you are taking caffeine for sleep deprivation or stress management,” said Dr. Fiser, “you kind of need to take a step back and realize that it is really just a band-aid in some ways. I think that looking more at the bigger picture and root cause of why you are using it in the first place is a good first step. If that means lifestyle modification and getting more sleep, putting the screens away, getting more exercise those things can accomplish the same thing without having to consume stuff that might have other detrimental effects.”

(Picture above provided by Caleb Shaw ’20)

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