Schreiber Science

Aaron Bialer, Copy Editor Emeritus

The majority of American adults consume at least 300 milligrams of caffeine every day—the equivalent of three to four cups of coffee.   As senioritis takes its final toll on the Class of 2014, the rest of the student body prepares for finals and Regents, which drives some students to this concentration-enhancing drug.

Caffeine, scientifically termed trimethylxanthine, is a naturally occurring stimulant found in plants.  Evolutionarily favored for its pesticide-like qualities, caffeine may paralyze insects that attack seedlings or plants lacking mechanical protection.

In humans, caffeine has various effects, offering heightened concentration and energy in exchange for gastrointestinal symptoms and dangerous increases in heart rate and blood pressure.  Additionally, caffeine may cause insomnia and has addictive qualities that can leave consumers fatigued, depressed, or irritable as a result of substance withdrawal.

There are some surprising alternatives for those who wish to deny trimethylxanthine a place in their lives.  In 2013, two Swedish researchers discovered that short wavelength (blue) light enhanced alertness.  Controlled experiments were set up to compare the effects of an hour of blue light at approximately 40 lux to that of 240 milligrams caffeine on 21 subjects.

Astoundingly, where both blue light and caffeine provided a similar increase in accuracy in a visual reaction test, blue light-enhanced subjects outperformed those who ingested caffeine during tests of executive function through distractions.  However, before installing a blue light, students should consider that no further research has been conducted to determine the light’s side effects and that other studies state that all types of visible light two to three hours before sleep are also sources of insomnia.

To further increase alertness, students preparing for finals may take exercise breaks or eat certain foods.  Exercise and various vitamins, such as vitamin C, found in citrus fruits, and vitamin B12, found in meat, offer stimulating effects similar to those of caffeine.

Students should eat breakfast on a regular basis and make sure that studying does not interfere with sleeping habits.  These simple routines naturally increase alertness.

Yet, as destructive as the negative side effects of caffeine may be, there exist various uncommonly discussed long-term benefits of caffeine.  Regular coffee drinkers benefit from reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease, colon cancer, cirrhosis, and gallstones; however, most doctors continue to suggest moderation in regard to caffeine intake.

As individual reactions vary, the way to decide upon your level of caffeine intake is to see how it affects you personally.  A cup of coffee in the morning should not result in nighttime insomnia and may be worth the extra work it allows you to accomplish, but only you know your own body.