Caffeine has been in the news the last couples of days with reports that the over consumption of it, particularly in the form of energy drinks, has caused an uptick in caffeine related emergency room visits. In fact the FDA has established that at least five people have died after consuming energy drinks, including a 14-year-old girl. While they won't go as far as to say the drinks caused the deaths, they're investigating the nature of the link.
As a result, the FDA is starting to look into how or if they should regulate the sale of energy drinks. This illuminating piece from Chemical & Engineering News digs down pretty deeply into the why's and hows of caffeine overdose. For those of you who aren't riveted by a jaunty discussion of enzymatic demethylation here are the high notes:
The average "safe" does of caffeine is around 400 milligrams at any given time. That works out to roughly the amount of coffee in three 8-ounce cups of coffee. They do note however that caffeine tolerance varies greatly, as does the rate at which different people can eliminate caffeine from their system. They point out that smokers tend to have metabolisms which processes caffeine more quickly than normal people.
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The story they led with is about a motocross racer who slammed 8 Red Bulls over the course of 7 hours, won a couple races and then promptly collapsed when his heart gave up the ghost. He was revived and recovered but a quick calculation reveals that he consumed around 579 milligrams of caffeine. As noted above, individual tolerance for caffeine can vary widely and we would hazard to guess that racing dirt bikes for most of the day might have put a little more stress on his heart than normal.
So why is the FDA singling out energy drinks and not coffee or tea? Mostly because energy drinks are easier to, well drink, and are easily available and more popular among at risk populations like children. You might order a "cup" of coffee suitable for bathing but there's no way you're sucking it all down at once. Much like drinking alcohol, it's definitely less bad to sip a couple drinks worth of drugs over a day or evening than it is to shotgun it all down at once.
The basic takeaway is this: Caffeine, like alcohol, is a drug. Just because you don't need an ID to buy a box of Monster energy drinks, doesn't mean you should sit down and hammer them into your face until you can taste colors and see into the future.