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Caffeine pills are a popular method for boosting short term energy and focus, often during work or study. But do they work and are they safe?
Like drinking a cup of coffee, taking a caffeine pill can provide a temporary boost in energy, memory, and focus.
While caffeine pills may help a person study or stay awake, high doses of caffeine can cause side effects and may not be safe for everyone.
Caffeine is one of the most popular drugs in the United States, with 85% of people in the U.S. consuming at least one drink containing caffeine daily.
In this article, we look at the potential benefits and risks of caffeine pills.
Caffeine is a stimulant drug that increases activity in the central nervous system. Coffee and tea are natural sources of caffeine, and manufacturers add caffeine to other products, such as sodas, energy drinks, and energy bars.
Caffeine pills may contain natural or synthetic forms of caffeine.
The amount of caffeine in these pills varies depending on the brand. In many cases, they contain 100 to 200 milligrams (mg) per tablet. This is more than in most cups of coffee but less than in some energy drinks.
For reference, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimate that caffeine levels in common products are as follows:
- An 8-ounce (oz) tea contains 30–50 milligrams (mg).
- An 8-oz coffee contains 80–100 mg.
- An 8-oz energy drink contains 40–250 mg.
According to the FDA, people can usually take 400 mg a day without negative side effects.
Caffeine pills are safe for most people in moderation, and if they limit their intake of additional sources of caffeine.
Some people are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than others, however, and may experience adverse reactions to these supplements and other sources of caffeine.
Doctors may recommend that the following groups limit their caffeine intake:
- those who are particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine
- people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive
- people with high blood pressure, heart conditions, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- children and adolescents
- people who experience regular migraine headaches
It is important to note that caffeine pills are not the same as pure caffeine powder. Pure caffeine powder is a potentially dangerous substance that may cause toxic effects, including seizures, upon consumption of even 0.15 tablespoons, which contains around 1,200 milligrams (mg) of caffeine.
As a result, the FDA have taken action to protect the public from pure caffeine by monitoring companies to ensure they are not manufacturing products that contain high levels of pure or concentrated caffeine. The FDA will enforce any violations by stopping the manufacture of the product or seizing it.
Caffeine may have some health benefits. However, most of the research on caffeine examines the effects of the caffeine present in coffee.
Because of this, scientists often find it difficult to separate the benefits of caffeine from the benefits of the other substances in coffee, such as antioxidants.
Potential benefits of caffeine include:
Increased focus and memory
Caffeine is a popular way to improve alertness and concentration when studying or working. Research supports its effectiveness for these reasons.
A 2014 study examined the effects of pills containing 200 mg of caffeine on memory in 160 adults.
The researchers found that those who took caffeine pills during a learning task did better on memory tests 24 hours later compared with those who took a placebo.
Improved athletic performance
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), caffeine can improve a person’s athletic performance if they take the correct amount at an appropriate time.
- better coordination, focus, and concentration
- less pain and feelings of fatigue
- improved endurance in high intensity exercises
A review study of 21 meta-analyses indicates that taking caffeine can improve exercise performance by affecting muscle strength and endurance.
However, the NCAA has banned the use of caffeine before competitions. Taking approximately 500 mg — or 6 to 8 cups of brewed coffee — between 2 and 3 hours before a competition is enough to result in a positive urine drug test.
Headaches and migraine relief
Caffeine may alleviate both migraines and tension headaches, possibly because it reduces a person’s perception of pain.
The FDA has approved caffeine for use with pain relievers to treat migraine headaches. Some migraine medications contain caffeine, such as Excedrin and Midol.
However, according to the American Migraine Foundation, people should limit caffeine to a maximum of 2 days per week for treating headaches. It appears that consuming caffeine three or more times weekly could increase migraine frequency.
They also suggest that those who have frequent headaches avoid caffeine altogether.
Reduced symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
Some people prefer to take their caffeine in pill form, while others would rather consume it through coffee or tea.
Factors to consider when choosing between caffeine pills and coffee include:
For those that do not enjoy the taste of coffee, caffeine pills could provide some similar benefits.
Caffeine pills may be more convenient for those who do not have access to a bathroom for long periods, including bus drivers and security personnel.
While caffeine in any form acts a diuretic and increases urine output, coffee may cause a more significant increase because it is liquid.
Also, caffeine pills make it easier to take in more caffeine faster. While this may be beneficial for some people, it also increases the risk of caffeine overdose, which causes anxiety, rapid heart rate, and other symptoms.
Coffee is acidic and can cause heartburn and exacerbate the symptoms of GERD. Caffeine pills may be a better option for those prone to reflux, but caffeine can still cause heartburn in some people.
Other beneficial components
Aside from caffeine, coffee contains high levels of antioxidants that may be responsible for some of its health benefits. People taking caffeine pills instead of drinking coffee will miss out on this antioxidant boost.
On the other hand, coffee contains coffee oils, such as cafestol and kahweol. These oils may increase cholesterol levels in people who drink a lot of coffee. Caffeine pills are free from coffee oils and may not have these same effects.
Caffeine can cause adverse effects, especially if people consume it in large quantities, or if they have a caffeine sensitivity. These effects include:
- anxiety and nervousness
- dysphoria, a feeling of unhappiness
- fast heart rate
- high blood pressure
- sleep problems
Extremely high quantities of caffeine can cause an overdose. Symptoms include:
- a rapid and irregular heartbeat
- feeling disorientated
People can also experience caffeine dependency if they regularly consume caffeine — even 1 cup a day may lead to dependence. This dependency can also lead to withdrawal symptoms if the person suddenly avoids caffeine.
Not everyone who takes caffeine daily will experience dependency or withdrawal symptoms. Some research indicates that genetic factors play a role in a person’s sensitivity to caffeine.
Caffeine may not be suitable for everyone. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children and adolescents avoid caffeine and other stimulants.
According to a 2016 study, high intakes of caffeine during adolescence can cause permanent changes in the brain that may increase anxiety in adulthood.
The FDA advise that people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive talk to their doctor about their caffeine intake.
Generally, caffeine pills contain 100–200 mg of caffeine per serving. People can usually take up to 400 mg per day without adverse side effects. However, some people are much more sensitive to caffeine than others.
The dosage for caffeine pills will vary depending on the brand of pills a person uses. Individuals should always follow the package instructions and never exceed the recommended dosage.
When calculating a person’s daily intake of caffeine, remember to take into consideration other foods and drinks that contain caffeine, including:
- energy bars
- energy drinks
- hot chocolate
- black tea
- green tea
Migraine medications, other medications, and some supplements may also contain caffeine.
People should also consider timing when they take caffeine pills. Taking them in the late afternoon or evening may impact sleep. It can take 4–6 hours for the body to metabolize half the caffeine they take in. Taking caffeine pills in the morning or early afternoon may be best.
Discontinue use if adverse reactions occur, including rapid heart rate, anxiety, or restlessness.
Caffeine pills are supplements that stimulate the central nervous system to help people stay awake, alert, and focused. They may also improve athletic performance and relieve migraines and tension headaches.
Caffeine is a drug, and so individuals should always stick to the recommended dosage and discontinue use if adverse reactions occur.
If people have concerns about caffeine pills or their caffeine intake, they should consult their doctor.