Seniors and Coffee: How Much is Too Much?


It’s a ritual that happens every morning across the world. Millions of people rise from their slumber and make their way to the kitchen, where they pour their first cup of morning coffee. How many people? According to the National Coffee Association, 70% of Americans drink coffee every week. About 62% drink it every day. And most have three cups of coffee, spread out through the day; 90% of older adults have a cup with breakfast, while the younger set is much more likely to have coffee at lunchtime – presumably for an afternoon caffeine pick-me-up[1].

Coffee has been beloved around the world since the 1500s, when a goat herder in Ethiopia noticed that his goats had excessive energy and didn’t sleep at night after eating coffee cherries from the bushes. Yes, coffee is not actually a bean – it’s a fruit! He told a group of monks, who realized they could use the coffee berries to stay awake and in prayer all night. In the 16th century, not providing your wife with enough coffee was reason for divorce in Constantinople. Fast forward to the 17th century, where coffee was deemed a narcotic and was banned from public consumption. All of these fun facts come from the ironically named Death by Coffee Roastery.

Despite all this back-and-forth, things worked out well for coffee, and about 2.25 billion cups of joe are consumed across the world every day[2].

There are some significant advantages to coffee besides the caffeine jolt that helps you wake up fully in the morning. A study in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research found that coffee might play a role in lowering your risk of depression. It might also be linked to a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes, better brain health and weight management, and a healthier heart[3].

But there is also the question of what happens when you have too much coffee. We know you die-hard coffee lovers out there don’t believe us yet, but there actually is a thing as too much coffee! Let’s dive in to how much coffee is going overboard.

How Much Coffee is Too Much?

For most adults, 400 milligrams of caffeine a day seems to be safe, according to The Mayo Clinic. That’s the equivalent of four cups of brewed coffee. Of course, determining just how much caffeine is actually in a cup of coffee depends upon all sorts of things, from the roast level and grind to the flavor and even the origin of the beans. But to give you a rough idea, UW Medicine says a typical 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains anywhere from 65 to 120 milligrams, while a shot of espresso can contain anywhere from 30 to 50 milligrams.

While this amount is a good rule of thumb, there are other factors that can determine just how much coffee is too much for a particular individual.

If you aren’t accustomed to drinking caffeine on a regular basis, even a little bit of it can make you jittery and lead to other unpleasant side effects. Depending upon when you drink coffee, you might find that you are restless at night and have trouble sleeping, as it can take hours for the caffeine in the coffee to be metabolized by your body. Your age, genetics, liver health, weight, and caffeine tolerance all play a role as well.

But one of the most important things for seniors to remember is that coffee can interact with some medications[4]:

·         Theophylline. This medication is used to open up the airways to make it easier to breathe. A side effect of this medication is feeling as though you’ve had some caffeine. So if you take the medication and then drink coffee, you might feel unpleasant side effects, such as heart palpitations and feeling wired.

·         Echinacea. Popular in herbal supplements, this energy-booster can be helpful in preventing colds and similar illnesses. But it can increase the concentration of caffeine in your blood, so you get more of a kick from your usual cup, and that could lead to heart problems for some.

·         Ephedrine. Found in decongestants, this medication can interact in serious ways with coffee, leading to a higher risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, or seizure.

What are the Side Effects of Too Much Coffee?

Most people are well aware that too much coffee can make you jittery, restless, and feeling the need to move around all the time. But there are other side effects that can be rather unpleasant[5][6]:

·         Headache

·         Insomnia or an inability to stay asleep at night

·         Feeling nervous or irritable

·         Fast heartbeat or heart palpitations

·         Muscle tremors

·         Frequent urination (and in some cases, an inability to control urination)

·         Diarrhea

·         Nausea

·         Anxiety

·         Sweating

When Coffee Becomes Dangerous

If you have any heart conditions, beware the cup of coffee. Caffeine can stimulate your heart rate and boost your blood pressure, which can negatively affect those who have a heart condition. Drinking too much coffee could lead to skips in the heartbeat, a faster heartbeat, or hard thumping as your heart pumps. These irregular heart rhythms could lead to sudden cardiac arrest[7].

Those with heart conditions should consider a medical alert system, such as a medical alert watch or pendant, to summon help in seconds if needed. In an emergency, getting help fast is essential!

Coffee can also be dangerous if you drink so much that it makes you restless or unable to sleep at night. A lack of sleep can eventually wear down your body in a variety of ways, as it can be tough on your heart, lead to impaired memory, relationship stress, a lower quality of life, and excessive daytime sleepiness, among other problems[8]. That sleepiness can lead to a higher risk of falls, and that can lead to serious issues if you do take a tumble, including concussion, broken bones, and traumatic brain injuries. Though wearing a medical alert system with fall detection can help ensure you don’t lie on the floor with no help available to you, the best option is always to eliminate the problem that might lead to a fall – and that might mean cutting back on the java.

Remember the Other Sources of Caffeine

Remember that while you are enjoying your cup of coffee, you might be putting other things into your body that boost your caffeine levels as well. These can include over-the-counter medications, such as those meant to help alleviate severe headaches or migraines, some prescription medications, energy bars, energy “shots” or similar drinks, or soda. Beware, especially, of energy drinks, which can contain up to a whopping 500 milligrams of caffeine[9]!

This can put you at serious risk if you blend energy drinks and coffee in your diet, as individuals can suffer from toxic effects of caffeine starting at about 1,200 milligrams – though keep in mind that for some, those negative effects can begin at much lower doses[10].

And while you might think switching to decaffeinated coffee takes care of the caffeine problem, that’s not entirely true: The Food and Drug Administration reports that even a decaf cup of coffee can contain between two and 15 milligrams of caffeine per 8-ounce cup. If you are highly sensitive to caffeine, even a few cups of decaf can lead to problems.

How to Cut Back on Caffeine

If you’re drinking too much coffee, you probably already know it. You are suffering from the side effects we listed above and perhaps others as well. You might have tried to cut back on coffee, but wound up with withdrawal symptoms that drove you right back to it, such as fatigue, irritability, difficulty with focus, and of course, headaches that can be bad enough to lead to nausea.

Despite what some might believe, coffee is not truly addicting like alcohol or opioids can be. Though you might have a psychological dependence on coffee as a habit, or you might feel a physical dependence on coffee to help you wake up in the morning, cutting back on coffee doesn’t hold the same dangers as cutting back on alcohol or drugs[11].

However, that doesn’t mean that stopping drinking coffee is a pleasant experience – it is most certainly not, especially if you’ve been drinking it for years. So cutting out coffee “cold turkey” is not a good idea. Here are some tips that can help:

·         Figure out how much you’re really drinking by paying close attention to portion sizes and labels. Most people use a coffee cup bigger than eight ounces, which is the standard size of a coffee serving. You might also not notice the caffeine you’re getting from energy drinks, energy bars, and the like. Read labels carefully and keep track of just how much caffeine you’re getting.

·         Cut back gradually on caffeine by drinking one less cup of coffee each day. You can also cut out other things that contain caffeine.

·         Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages late in the day so you can sleep better at night, and thus need less caffeine in the morning.

·         Go the decaf route. Though this coffee might taste the same, it doesn’t provide nearly as much caffeine, so you are cutting back on your consumption without giving up your beloved drink.

·         Drink lots of water. Dehydration can cause a headache, which can be exacerbated by cutting back on your usual caffeine intake. Water can help counteract that.

·         If you’re feeling nausea or experiencing diarrhea, be sure to drink something with electrolytes (but make sure it doesn’t have caffeine in it).

·         Wait it out. You’re going to feel a little awful for 48 hours or so. But after that, your body begins to adjust to the difference in caffeine levels, and you will gradually be able to get down to no caffeine at all over a matter of weeks.

While you are going through this process of cutting back on caffeine, remember that you might feel all sorts of things, including fatigue. Though it’s always good for seniors and elderly adults to wear an emergency response solution at all times, it’s especially important when you are physically tired, such as when you are trying to cut back on caffeine. Fatigue can make you a greater fall risk. Though fall prevention is key – by uncluttering your home, using grab bars, and looking to aging in place home modifications – if you do take a tumble, it helps to know that you can press a button to summon help right away. So keep a panic button handy.

As always, Alert1 wishes you good health and safety!