Caffeine Hurts So Good

With a simple swipe of a Starbucks gift card, a stressed-out college student temporarily resolves drowsiness by downing a grande caramel macchiato. This daily visit to UC Irvine’s on-campus Starbucks is a mindless and potentially harmful habit. While sipping on their coffee, this student is unaware of their blood pressure rising, their increased heart rate and their amplified likelihood for insomnia, glaucoma, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Why aren’t these health risks advertised on a Starbucks cup as they are on a pack of cigarettes? UCI’s commitment to a healthy campus community is contradicted by its congestion of coffee shops and Red Bull vending machines.

Caffeine is not normally considered a drug, but an Amherst undergraduate earned herself a trip to the emergency room after ingesting 600 mg of the substance. Coffee is the second-most legally traded commodity, with about 60 percent of the overall national adult population enjoying it. With its various forms of consumption, caffeine has earned the title as today’s most addictive legal substance. UCI’s coffee carts and overload of energy drinks have fancy gimmicks and sales pitches that sustain them. There is a 5-foot tall 5-Hour Energy stand-up in the Zot-N-Go. The 12-ounce pink Rockstar comes with its own Capri-Sun-like straw, which is aimed to make one feel like a kid again. There is no corner on campus to which a student can turn without being exposed to caffeine pop culture.

Last year, a New U writer shared her personal experience with caffeine dependence and detailed the headaches and shakes that came with her withdrawals. UCI students and faculty are clearly reliant on caffeine. In 2007, Starbucks had 102 campus locations, mostly in student centers and libraries. Today, many institutions have used Starbucks as a tool to keep their student life centered on campus. According to a 2009 USA Today report, affiliates of multiple universities have used Starbucks as a stream of revenue. Even though franchise owners have lease contracts that benefit the school, several feel that university partnerships with Starbucks are a “commercialization of academic space.” The dean of the University of San Francisco remarked that the coffeehouse has been a part of academic culture for generations.

Similar to a drug addiction, those who go a day or two without their drug of choice — in our case, caffeine — will exhibit withdrawals.  Many health and wellness websites state that withdrawal symptoms from caffeine often include headaches, high blood pressure, increased respiration rates, nervousness, increased stress, exhaustion and night tremors. Caffeine is everywhere: in vending machines, the bookstore, coffee carts and the dining halls. And caffeine distributors have developed many ways to consume caffeine — via chocolate-covered coffee beans, soda, coffee, tea, 5-Hour Energy shots, hip energy drinks and even chewing gum. We all have our favorite source of caffeine. For some this is maybe a twice-a-week trip to Java City, but for others it’s a daily or twice-daily trip to the Zot-N-Go or Café Espresso. How are we promoting a “healthy campus” with this constant promotion of caffeine consumption?

Final exam time on campus means procrastination and all-nighters. Many students rely on the 24-hour Starbucks espresso shot service to carry them through. The trashcans of Gateway Study Center are overflowing with the classic white and green Starbucks cups. The Green Campus Recycling Initiative is thrown in the trash, along with those $3 Monster and Red Bull cans. Caffeine reliance is influencing this campus in more ways than one could imagine.

Like the previously mentioned New U writer, sometimes one should take a minute to reflect on their dependence on a substance and the effect it has on their daily life. Nothing is better than a nice cup of Joe in morning, but four to six cups of coffee can take a huge toll on your nervous system and overall health. Your body will always be playing catch-up; the choices you make in college will have long-term effects. As for your wallet, an alternative to Java City is brewing your own coffee, and an alternative to a RockStar is a VitaminWater. As midterms approach, try keeping a log of how much you spend on caffeine products, record your sleeping patterns, and even observe how much you exercise; this could all lead to a healthier you and more money in your wallet.

Jacqueline Gaton is a fourth-year public health and Spanish double major. She can be reached at jgaton@uci.edu.