News has come out of South Carolina this week that a previously healthy teenager has died after drinking too much coffee too quickly. Davis Cripe, aged 16, collapsed after drinking the sum total of a McDonald’s latte, a Mountain Dew, and an energy drink within two hours. That doesn’t sound like much, but there have been similar deaths following what seem like insignificant caffeine intake. In 2011, a 14-year-old drank two large cans of energy drink and suffered a sudden death, much like Davis. There have been similar cases in other parts of the states occurring uncommonly – these deaths rarely involving intake of caffeine alone.
How much is too much?
So how much caffeine does it take to kill you? At Cripe’s weight of 90kg, the lethal dose in 50% (LD50) works out at 18g of pure caffeine. That works out as 190 regular cups of coffee. Cripe’s recorded intake stretches to 460mg of caffeine at most, or five cups of coffee. How many of us have drank more than that in a single day? However, the case here is not one of overdose, rather the speed of consumption. Some of the above examples followed ingestion of similar levels, which is 3 of Starbuck’s Cafée Lattes – probably more likely to kill you with its sugar content than by producing a fatal heart rhythm.
Coffee, the opiate of the masses
Coffee is ubiquitous. For better or for worse, most of us enjoy it in one form fairly regularly. The productivity of the modern office is rooted in coffee drinking. Hospitals would struggle to staff night shifts and on-call duties without it. Certainly, it has helped me write this article. But what is it actually doing to me? Caffeine is a chemical which stimulates my nervous system, producing alertness but also tremors and anxiety. Up to 400mg per day is stated to be safe for adults, which is four cups of brewed coffee for most of us. Though if we drink this on a regular basis, we run the risk of experiencing withdrawal when we stop.
Coffee’s poisonous purpose
Caffeine is a xanthine, a chemical group containing other stimulants such as theobromine, which is what makes chocolate lethal to dogs. It is produced by sixty plants including the two cultivated coffee plants, kola nuts, tea leaves and cacao, the plant we obtain chocolate from. These plants secrete caffeine as a pesticide; its effects kill insects which would feast on the seedlings. At human scale, these effects speed up your heart, decrease tiredness and increase your metabolic rate. If we take the long view, a cup of coffee a day may protect somewhat against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease while increasing already high blood pressure.
Do we all consume too much caffeine? Probably not. The pace of modern life seems to be built around a steaming cup of Joe or cool cola. Certainly in its absence, other social stimulants to be consumed in group settings take its place; betel nuts in India, crystal meth in North Korea and the recently outlawed khat in Somalia. Some substance seems to allow us to get up early in the morning and work a full day, or provide a pretext for seeing friends/a romantic interest. That said, consuming twelve cans of Red Bull is a ridiculous thing to do. As with most things, the Stoic maxim ‘all things in moderation’ rings true.
A note from the Editor
Puts down coffee.
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Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing. All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice. Article proofed and edited for publication by Dr. BM Janaway.
Sources and Further Reading
- Peters JM. Factors Affecting Caffeine Toxicity: A Review of the Literature. 1967. The Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and the Journal of New Drugs. 7 (3): 131–141
- Nathanson JA. Caffeine and related methylxanthines: possible naturally occurring pesticides. 1984. Science. 226 (4671): 184–7
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