November 30, 2018

Can Too Much Coffee Kill You?

Every year, countless articles pop up heralding coffee as anything from liquid gold to the second-best thing for your health, next to a visit to the doctor. Coffee is often touted as a superfood, a miracle in a bean, the one beverage that is responsible for about half of the modern workforce’s productivity. But then, maybe once or twice a year, we get an article about how it’s not actually the best thing for your health. How too much coffee is going to kill you, and how coffee consumption is linked to a weaker heart, and shorter lifespan. Of course, the distinction here is that the dosage makes the poison. Water is essential to every single function in the body, and dehydration is a very painful process and eventual death. On the other hand, too much water will kill you.

So how much coffee do you need to die? The answer is: more than you’d think. While caffeine is theoretically toxic, the sheer amount of caffeine needed to kill someone is much higher than you’d ever get in any reasonable amount of coffee. You would vomit, or your stomach would burst long before you drink enough coffee to commit suicide. Most conventional coffees would have you drink anywhere between 70 to 33 cups before you reach a fatal limit – much more than your stomach is capable of handling. Long before you reach the deathbed, you’ll be in the emergency room, struggling with strong nausea and the urge to relieve yourself as quickly as possible. Caffeine itself is still toxic at high dosages, and there are ways to go too far.

A Lot of Coffee

There are very few reported cases of caffeine overdose, and none of them identified coffee as a main culprit. As effective as coffee is at being a stimulant with a number of mild health benefits, caffeine itself is still a concentrated stimulant capable of cause an overdose, much like anything else. It takes approximately 5g of caffeine in the bloodstream at any given moment to cause death. Death by caffeine is like any stimulant overdose – the heart goes into overdrive, beats irregularly, then stops beating, and you die.

 

The “70 cups” number of earlier is just to give you an idea of the sheer volume of coffee needed to die through caffeine intoxication, but the reality is that different beans and brews produce wildly different levels of caffeine per cup of coffee. The average cup of black brewed coffee has anywhere from 40-150mg of caffeine, which is a very, very varied number. Even if we’re assuming your coffee is on the stronger end of that spectrum, you need 33 cups to get 5g. And you’d need to drink those cups in very quick succession, not leisurely over the course of a day or two. You’d feel queasy, sick, and you’d potentially hallucinate and throw up before you actually die this way.

Some specialty coffees are a bit stronger. Death Wish coffee has 728mg of caffeine for every 350ml of coffee, and is widely marketed as the strongest, most caffeinated coffee on the planet. You’d still have to drink about 2.4 liters of Death Wish coffee to get close to the fatal limit, and you’d be off your rocker and potentially nauseous beyond understanding by then. Still, 2.4 liters is far more doable than nearly three dozen cups of coffee.

Of course, this is all theoretical. The truth is that it might take more to kill any given person, or less. Caffeine sensitivity is something that is largely unresearched but probably genetic, and it determines how tolerant a person is to caffeine at a base level, and the rate at which their tolerance grows as their caffeine consumption progresses. Someone with an incredibly high tolerance would theoretically need more caffeine to overdose.

Still, you don’t need to drink that much to begin having a negative impact on your health. What matters, however, is consistency. A consistently high rate of caffeine consumption has been linked to an early death, although it’s important to look into why.

What Heavy Coffee Consumption Implies

There’s one landmark study that goes on to say there is a correlation between people who drink more than four cups of coffee per day and shaving off a considerable amount of years from your potential longevity. People who drink that much coffee are at a higher risk for all causes of death – meaning, regardless of what the cause is, from cancer to heart disease, smoking or alcohol, very high coffee consumption was a common factor.

But it’s important to identify the flaws in this reasoning. Aside from potentially flawed methodology in the study itself, there’s also the fact that heavy coffee use was correlated with other unhealthy life choices, including lack of sleep, extreme levels of workplace stress, lots of tobacco and nicotine consumption (which accounts for far more deaths than alcohol and heroin combined), and alcohol use. In other words – people who drink more than four cups of coffee per day also usually tend to live lives that are unhealthy in general.

So, Is Coffee Good For You?

On the other hand, there seems to be threshold limit. While extreme coffee consumption is linked with cigarette use and alcohol, people who drank 1.5-3 cups of coffee per day were at a lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome, which is a list of symptoms commonly associated with a sedentary lifestyle and excess bodyfat.

Still, too much coffee is a bad thing even when you aren’t getting close to a caffeine threshold. Drinking coffee throughout the day will block your brain from properly processing adenosine, which is a necessary neurotransmitter for a number of important purposes, not the least of which is sleepiness. We have a biological clock that forces us to get some shuteye ideally at least once a day, keeping us mentally as well as physically fit.

Improper timing or excessive caffeine is going to last longer in the system, keeping you up, putting you at greater risk for a cascade of physical and mental health issues. Other problems tend to be temporary but could become problematic if caffeine is consumed regularly throughout the day, often on an hourly basis. Two common symptoms of high caffeine use are a fluttering heart rate and high blood pressure, although these symptoms pass quickly and don’t remain a permanent fixture among adults who drink coffee or caffeinated drinks.

Links Between Caffeine and Anxiety

There have been reports that coffee is linked to increased anxiety. There have also been reports that coffee improves and relieves symptoms of anxiety. And finally, there have been countless anecdotal reports of both, as well as reports where drinking or not drinking coffee had absolutely no effect on anxiety whatsoever.

The problem here is that there isn’t enough evidence or data to conclusively say anything, and everything points towards coffee being either a potential culprit, mildly helpful, or completely irrelevant in matters of anxiety, especially with people with anxiety disorders.

Coffee and Sugar

Some of the health problems commonly associated with coffee also happen to be linked to the fact that many take their coffee with sugar and cream, or any combination of other ingredients consisting mostly of a lot of glucose and a lot of fat.

If coffee does have any health benefits outside of being a powerful motivator and effectively helping people focus, it’s likely that a pot of black brew is your only really feasibly healthy way of attaining said benefits, without canceling them out through the copious consumption of sugar and milk.

If black coffee isn’t your thing (ostensibly because you dislike the bitter taste), try to give it a week anyway. You might turn around on that opinion and come to realize that you love the taste. Most people I know who originally thought that black coffee was too strong and bitter came to find that they preferred it to “dressed” coffee after a while, so I’d definitely argue that it’s an acquired taste, if anything.

The Dosage Makes the Poison

The takeaway at the end of this article that if you’ve ever felt in doubt, it’s likely that someone much older and much wiser than you spent many years pondering the same thing and came to a pretty simple and apt conclusion – in this case, it’s that the dosage makes the poison. Coffee can be a healthy thing, but too much of it will be harmful, if only to your mental health as you begin to rely on caffeine excessively and lose out on sleep.

On the other hand, it’s important to keep in mind that coffee is not the only way you might be getting your caffeine, and if you’re particularly a fan of ordering several complex frappes throughout the day rather than refilling a boring cup of joe from the same drip machine everyone is using in the office, then you’ve got more than just caffeine to worry about. Excessive sugar consumption can be insidious, and a lot of people are generally oblivious to the amount of sugar they’re consuming throughout the day. This might not necessarily be an issue for the waistline if you’re still staying within your caloric limits, but glucose consumption in addition to caffeine can cause your insulin to spike throughout the day, which puts you at risk for a number of metabolic and lifestyle issues.

In other words – skip the energy drinks, skip the Red Bull, skip the frappes, and try some black coffee if you’re just drinking it for the health benefits.