Caffeine: Friend or Foe? (Part 1)

How many of you make a morning pilgrimage to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts? How many of you grab an icy can of diet cola to jump-start your day? How many of you reach for a caffeinated beverage to "perk" you up when the midafternoon slump hits you like a ton of bricks?


If you mentally raised your hand in the affirmative to any of the above questions, chances are you’re a caffeine-craver. About 90% of Americans consume caffeine in some form every day, and more than half of us consume 300 milligrams (mg), which is equivalent to about three cups of coffee, or more every day. In fact, caffeine has been dubbed the most popular drug of choice in our country.

Caffeine, in its pure form, is a white, bitter-tasting powder that has addictive properties. It works pretty much like heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines on the brain (albeit in a milder manner). And, just like many other drugs, caffeine “users” quickly feel the effects of withdrawal when they cut back on their intake: headache, fatigue, and decreased alertness.

Coffee beans, tea leaves, and cocoa nuts are natural sources of caffeine, but caffeine is added to many other beverages and foods, including colas and “energy” drinks (e.g., Red Bull). Because it isn’t strictly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), caffeine has now found its way into innocuous-sounding foods, such as jelly beans, candy bars, gum, oatmeal, and even beer!

The amount of caffeine in a food or beverage can vary widely. Here’s a quick look at the caffeine content of some of the more popular foods and drinks that Americans consume every day (some information obtained from Nutrition Action Healthletter, March 2008):

  • Starbucks coffee, 16 ounces: 330 mg caffeine
  • Jolt, 23.5 ounces: 280 mg caffeine
  • Dunkin’ Donuts Turbo Hot, 14 ounces: 255 mg caffeine
  • Black/green tea, 16 ounces: 60–100 mg caffeine
  • Sugar Free Red Bull, 8.3 ounces: 80 mg caffeine
  • Snickers Charged, 1.83 ounces: 60 mg caffeine
  • Bud Extra beer, 10 ounces: 55 mg caffeine
  • Diet Mountain Dew, 12 ounces: 54 mg caffeine
  • Diet Coke, 12 ounces: 47 mg caffeine

Even coffee-flavored ice cream contains caffeine, anywhere from about 15 to 50 mg per 1/2 cup. Don’t be fooled into thinking that “decaf” versions of tea and coffee are caffeine-free, either. While decaf teas and coffees contains much less caffeine than their regular counterparts, they do have some. For example, one cup of decaf tea or coffee contains about 2 mg caffeine. That’s not a lot, but depending on how much you drink, it could possibly add up.

By the way, caffeine is added to some medicines, too. Excedrin and Anacin, popular over-the-counter painkillers, have it. (Caffeine helps the body better absorb medication). In fact, two Extra Strength Excedrin tablets contain 130 mg caffeine. Some prescriptions painkillers that contain caffeine include Darvon, Fiorinal, and Norgesic.

Taking in more than 500 mg per day of caffeine (about 6 or 7 cups of coffee) may cause restlessness, disturbed sleep, headaches, anxiety, heart palpitations, and gastrointestinal distress. Some people should probably not consume caffeine, or only take in small amounts, including pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Next week: Caffeine’s effect on diabetes—good or bad?

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  • Dorothy

    I have been caffeine intolerant for about
    15 years. I try not to drink or eat anything
    with caffeine as it gives me severe vertigo.
    I have not found a doctor who completely
    understands my problem.

  • Kathy

    Have you seen an Ear,Nose,Throat specialist? I had terrible vertigo that was aggravated by caffiene. I was finally diagnosed with Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. I had this for years before it was ever diagnosed. I also had migraines, but those have stopped since I quit drinking milk. Who would believe that???

  • Ephrenia

    Soda companies claim they add caffeine to improve the flavor of their products. So my son decided to test this as a science experiment.

    We had a “booth” during his school’s Fall Festival with a blind taste test between Pepsi and Caffeine-free Pepsi. People of all ages picked soda A is better, soda B is better, or They are the Same.

    The results? Soda A received 56 votes, Soda B received 57 votes and They are the Same received 92 votes. If you know anything about statistical probabilities, this created an almost perfect Bell-curve – which is the result you get for any random event. Our conclusion was that caffeine did not truly effect the flavor.

    So when is the lawsuit for the soda companies adding addictive properties to sell their products? (tongue-in-cheek reference to the cigarette lawsuits)

  • Sharon

    As a type 1 diabetic(insulin dependent) I found that drinking coffee elevated my blood sugars dramatically. Example: In the morning my fasting blood could be 100, I would take 20 units of Lantus (24 hour insulin) and after 2 cups of coffee it would go up to 250. I only use non dairy coffee creamer. My doctor didn’t believe me. About 2 years later he tells me that coffee can stimulate my liver to secrete stored glucose and this makes my blood sugars rise. My doctor thought I was creating false reasons for irregular blood sugars. Now I switch back and forth between black tea one day and a weaker coffee the next (with a pinch of cardomom in the grounds). Caffine in sodas didn’t seem to affect me.

  • Chris

    I am one of the 90% for sure. 2 cups every morning. I’m looking forward to part 2.

  • J. Turner

    This is in reference to the vertigo post. I eliminated all caffeine at age 29 when I was also diagnosed with positional vertigo. I previously loved coffee and had it daily. I had no caffeine from that time to age 50. I then started a regimen of nightly Benadryl (only 1 to 2 tsps) to treat my vertigo. Antihistamines are used to treat vertigo as they dry out the inner ear. Fluid can be a vertigo trigger.

    That was two years ago and not only do I not have vertigo but I also enjoy my daily coffee again. : )

  • Dorothy

    Thanks, Kathy. I am scheduled for a exam
    tomorrow with an Otolaryngologist’s testing

  • sillyblonde

    I am soo happy to read that someone else understands what I am going through. I just turned 29, and have been experiencing what I believe to be vertigo since January 16, 2009 (it is now March 5, 2009). I have had a handful of “good days” but for the most part, I experience vertigo each day. I usually have an hour in the morning where I feel completely clear-headed, and then my unwelcome friend, vertigo, seems to creep in. I feel like I am in a fog all day. I feel unclear, and sort of goofy-headed. My friends and family are tired of hearing about my daily battle. It is really troublesome trying to work a professional job and feeling this way. I feel robbed of my normal way of life. I have since begun pulling away from social situations because I feel so strange in my head. I have noticed a connection between caffiene and the vertigo. Also, if I am hungry….here comes vertigo. I was also experiencing heart palpitations and cold sweats. My doctor put me on Beta Blockers to control the heart palpitations. I have been lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons for the past 10 years during the summer. I wonder if I got some water in my ear. I have no pain, however. Any advice? Thank you all for sharing your stories with me.

  • acampbell

    Hi sillyblonde,

    I’m not a doctor, so I can’t say if you have vertigo or not. However, I’d recommend that you go back to your physician to discuss your symptoms and get worked-up for vertigo (or any other related conditions). Vertigo can be treated with medication and repositioning exercises that a trained physician or physical therapist can help you with. Perhaps other readers can share some advice, as well, but I’d suggest another visit with your physician to better pinpoint what is causing your symptoms.

  • Nattyj

    It is such a relief in a way to read that people are having the same symptoms as me I am a 34 yr old female since new years day I have been suffering with the dizziness, confusion sore head at the back and feeling numb at times I also had the palpitations and have cut out caffeine I have been off my work for 5wks now and can’t contemplate going back until this goes away it feels like such a hopeless situation i have been prescribed antibiotics amoxycillin first then prochlorperazine tablets which felt like they were sending me doo lally stopped taking them now I am on antihistamines called stugeron don’t think they are having any affect either but been advised to keep taking them for now (2wk dose) the doctor has also gave me a nasal spray called otrivine to try as my ears feel really muffled I want to pop them all the time but my right ear refuses I feel if I could get the ears to clear it would help a little. I have been put on the waiting list for the ear,nose and throat in our local area waiting time 12 wks!!!! I have read up that there are a few excercises that can be performed why the hell can doctors not carry these out instead of palming people off. I think my partner and family in general are sick of me going on about how I feel.. I have never felt so low in my life awareness about vertigo should be more readily availble to people so they can try and self help heres hoping I wake up tomorrow and it has miraculously disappeared!!!lol If any one can suggest anything I can try please contact me. Thanks N

  • CindyB

    In all my years of living with vertigo, I have come to the conclusion that doctors know very little about it. I actually had one doctor tell me, “I can’t do anything for you, but suggest that you drink plenty of water everyday”. Honestly, that’s what he said. Anyway, I took matters into my own hands and researched for myself. I’ve tried pretty much everything. For the past almost two years I have been taking a natural (100%) supplement from the local vitamin store called Kudzu (150mg). It’s an amazing chinese root that keeps my vertigo at bay. It has helped immensely. Google it and do some research, maybe it can help you too. I have also recently discovered the connection between vertigo and caffeine. I too, have lived with bouts of vertigo on a daily basis. Since being off caffeine now for almost 10 days, I honestly feel vertigo-free. Caffeine was definately a trigger.

    Be good to your body and try something natural. Prescription drugs are not always the answer.

  • John

    Yup, I too believer caffeine and vertigo are somehow connected. Have been having occasional bouts of dizziness/vertigo now and then. Analyzed my diet and found that its probably triggered by caffeine. 2 cups of instant coffee + half a bar of dark chocolate has me feeling giddy. When its severe, its vertigo. Recalling my previous instances experiences with giddiness, they were mostly a combination of coffee (caffeine) and chocolates (caffeine again).

    Resting and going to sleep will usually make the giddyness go away.

  • Lorne

    About Twelve years ago I experienced vertigo upon awakening early in the morning and it turned out I had wax build up in the ear. No problems after that until January this year while at the gym working out suddenly the whole gym beagan spinning. Went to the hospital followed by my primary doctor who concluded the vertigo was caused by a virus. It did go away completly after a month and everything returned to normal until this morning when I woke up with it again. I realize and believe that coffee is the problem because when I was at the gym in Jan. I drank a cup of starbucks coffee prior to the workout and yesterday I had coffee agian before I worked out. I have not had coffee all along except when these two incidencess occured because I had a feeling the coffee had something to do with it after the first time. I am going to stop drinking coffee all together now.

  • rachel

    Hi eveyone,
    I woke up to vertigo again today. I have had it almost everyday for three years. Did lots of tests, can’t figure it out.

    Last night i had caffeine and a plate of spagehhti, and it got worse……..

    Beginning to wonder my self about the coffee/tea connection……….

    Feeling frustrated and want to resume a normal life again that includes driving and being independant again……..

    Oh, by the way, I quit smoking five days ago and my spins have been worse. Wonder if it’s detox from cigarettes?

    Good luck to you all, thanks for listening.


  • Deborah

    Fascinating… I’ve had vertigo since April 2010. I had an MRI to rule out serious brain issues (my brain is fine). But still have vertigo some days. I too found connection between caffeine and vertigo. However, some dark chocolate (small dose) has made it better, while tea and larger doses make it worse. If liver is releasing more glucose when I take caffeine, does this mean that vertigo is high blood sugar problem? I was thinking I may have low blood sugar because of getting relief with small piece dark chocolate. I stopped all alcohol intake, am eating healthier diet with lots of antioxidants, fruit, nuts, etc. I too was diagnosed with positional vertigo after other issues ruled out, but I’m beginning to believe problem is with my liver?

    Vertigo can be terribly debilitating and I’m amazed at how many people actually suffer. Thanks for posting these messages.

  • Cindy

    I have enjoyed reading everyones entries…I was diagnosed with vertigo in 1995, and I still have it almost daily. I have been to a chiropractor, ENT, have had MRI’s, practiced head and eye excercises, been on all kinds of meds, and now I found out that I have elevated optic nerves. I have always had floaters, but I have also began seeing flashes of light. My eyes are checked at least one or two times a year due to my floaters, and I do wear contacts. This was the first time that elevated optic nerves were mentioned.

    I go see a specialist in about a month. I have also cut out all caffeine in the last couple of days due to my elevated optic nerves possibly being a circulation problem. From what I’m reading from you guys…stopping caffeine may help my vertigo and circulation.

  • vertigofree

    I had begin to have these spells of dizziness, nausea when once after turning my head swiftly in the middle of the night. I literally grabbed my wife’s hand b/c I thought I was having a heart attack. After this occurred for weeks, I went to the doctor. They had no remedy and just gave me nausea pills, and said it wasn’t life threatening and that I’d just have to live with it.

    However, after doing some research on google. I saw that there was a connection of coffee or caffeine. So I stopped for a couple of months, but forgot I read the article. Everything was good during that time frame, then I remember flying out to airport and upon arriving at my destination I got a severe case of Vertigo once again.

    I was able to put two and two together and realized that I drank coffee every time I went on trips and that would follow a severe bout of Vertigo. I didn’t consider myself a heave coffee drinker, but after this thing broke into my life at age 33 I quit altogether drinking coffee…I’ve had to even stop drinking certain tea. I’ve not had another serious bout with it again. My advice try killing the Coffee and I believe you’ll kill Vertigo.

  • Jan in Florida

    I have read all of the prior posts and not one of them talks about a diuretic. I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease after several vertigo incidents. Symptoms were SEVER dizziness (where you cannot even move, much less work), rushing water in the ear and permanent hearing loss. At the E.N.T. DR I was prescribed 25 mg of HCTZ per day (hydrochlorithyazide)and the vertigo spells have stopped. That was about 10 years ago. I drink 1/2 caffeine 1/2 decaff daily (2 cups) and also typically have a diet coke in the afternoon. I am also a type I diabetic for 33 years. As for a change in the BS (blood Sugar)after caffeine, yes mine rises in the morning after coffee with sugar free vanilla creamer.

    Oh BTW, I did suffer mild hearing loss from the Meniere’s disease because I did not seek help sooner.

    I hope that this helps someone out there.

  • Lori in CT

    I suffered from verigo for about 20 years. I used to carry meclazine 25 mg at all times. (Same ingrediant as in dramamine but much cheaper.) In Nov 2010 I was diaganosed with gastrisis (very sensitive stomach with inflamation). I was put on a mild diet that included no caffeine and no artificial sugars. It is now March 2011 and I have had no veritigo for over 4 months. This is like a miracle to me after 20 years. I think the caffeine was the problem even though I only had 1 cup of coffee on most days. I now only drink water and herbal teas.

  • Dan

    Lori, herbal teas have caffeine in them. I think all of you should shotgun a Monster and try to run, kind of like that game where you spin around and try to run lol!

  • ran

    I am having bouts of vertigo lasting 2-8hrs every other month. They started in 2011. I am looking into (1) caffeine (2) tricor (3) dehydration or not enough water
    Anyone on this board taking tricor for low hdl (good cholesterol )?

  • Jami

    I had coffee today and I got severe vertigo, I was falling all over the place and felt like I was drunk. I didn’t have a heavy breakfast only a piece of pound cake and a pecan bar from the coffee shop. I’ve been extremely sensitive to coffee lately and it seems to be getting worse. Coffee also gives me headaches. The only problem is that I really enjoy coffee!! It looks like I’m going to have to cut back. I stopped drinking coffee during my pregnancy and started back again once I weaned the baby at 7/8 months. So I guess I’ll have to cut back to once a week or eliminate it altogether. I also enjoy chocolate, so we’ll see how that goes… I hear there are some nice coffee alternatives. I’ve read about Raja’s Cup, I’m going to buy some and see how it is. They say it’s full of antioxidants and a better option. I’ll give it a try.

  • carol

    I have been fighting a rise in blood sugar of about 100 points from the time I get up until after 2 cups of coffee…went to bed last night…126…after 2 cups of coffee this morning 278. What is that?

  • acampbell

    Hi carol,

    It’s hard to say if the rise in your glucose is due to the coffee or not. It’s common for glucose levels to rise overnight due to hormones that are released in the early morning hours. What you might try doing is skipping the coffee one morning and checking your blood glucose 2–3 hours after you get up and see what happens!

  • Robin

    My grand daughter has type one diabetes. Some iced teas have caffeine in them. Can she have caffeine?

  • acampbell

    Hi Robin,

    Your granddaughter can have some caffeine. The issue is how much she takes in from foods and beverages. So, if she’s drinking diet cola and ice tea all day, that’s likely too much. She should also pay attention to how caffeine affects her blood glucose by checking her glucose with her meter.

  • toby

    I’m 26 now. Had an extreme attack of vertigo at age 24 and was anxiety ridden partially lying in bed for weeks (had extensive blood work – all OK; in fact excellent), after this I have been “vertigal”, quite anxious and mentally bloated more or less all the time; the rare day now and then is vertigo free.

    It really seems to have a connection with hot drinks, not necessarily caffeine. If I do not consume any hot drinks whatsoever it seems to give up after a few days. I tried stopping coffee and caffeinated tea for two months before; it had little positive effect on my condition.

    It finally dawned on me though that even many herbal teas contain significant amounts of tannin and other chemicals. A thing such as tannin allergy apparently exists and can cause anxiety/vertigo, according to more or less reputable web sources. I’ll bookmark this and return after I’ve been hot-drink free for two months…

  • acampbell

    Hi toby,

    I’m sorry to say that I’m not familiar with tannin allergy, but no doubt it likely exists. Please keep us posted on how you do. Also, I hope you’ve had a work-up for other possible causes of your vertigo.

  • jim snell

    Regarding response by Carol:

    She does not say or I missed that part if coffee was black.

    This is not simple issue as if she is using cream, canned evap milk of that other dead crap that says no sugar and a tiny little star pointing out there are corn syrup/sugar solids in the podwered cow; these all will lift the BG neatly.

    Prior to getting my diabetes stabalized, my body in am was super sensitive to ANY carbs in the real cow, canned milk, powdered cow that would really spike the BG 20 to 40 points. Only BLACK no exceptions stopped that.

    Otherwise, thank you for all the excellent blogs and comments.

  • HKoehn

    There are really only two types of vertigo – peripheral or central nervous system. I believe caffeine can be a triggering factor for either one.

    I do think that what several of you described in these comments is actually Migraine Associated Vertigo (MAV is the acronym commonly used for this). This condition is also sometimes referred to as vestibular migraine. These types of migraines do not usually have the typical headache/pain. Often, disequalibrium (a feeling of being off balance), dizziness, and vertigo are the only or at least primary symptoms. Another common symptom is a feeling that you have a lump in your throat. The type of vertigo experienced with MAV is generally not the wild, spinning sort that is experienced with peripheral types of vertigo, but it’s still quite disconcerting. It’s generally more of a rocking sensation and can vary in intensity throughout the day. MAV is usually not overly sensitive to the position of your body or to movement which also separates it from peripheral type of vertigo. Another difference is that MAV usually responds at least somewhat to common anti-inflammatory medications like Advil (don’t use anything with Caffeine).

    An Ear, Nose and Throat specialist may or may not correctly diagnose you with MAV. Getting an accurate diagnosis can be difficult. Even if your ENT does diagnose it correctly, he probably won’t be able to treat you for it. Migraine treatment is usually done by a neuroligst and with MAV you will need to find a neuroligist that recognizes MAV as a legitimate condition and is willing to treat it. These can be difficult to find. I live in southeastern PA and my closest option (as far as I know, at current time of writing) is John Hopkins in Baltimore.

    Treatment for MAV is not overly fast or simple. It has to be treated in the same way that migraine headaches are treated. Most commonly, you’ll need to make some diet changes in order to avoid the foods that are your migraine triggers. Caffeine is a very common trigger as well as alcohol, aged cheeses, nuts, and anything pickled, aged, or fermented. I highly recommend that you start by cutting out caffeine but going cold turkey probably isn’t a wise idea. Instead, decrease your caffeine intake slowly over a period of one to two weeks until you are finally consuming NO caffeine at all. I was drinking only 8 oz of coffee every morning and I tried going off cold turkey, but that was enough to give me a very severe withdrawal headache that lasted 1-1/2 days until I finally gave in a consumed about 1/2 cup of hot tea. Over the next few days I continued to lower my caffeine consumption but still had some fairly severe headaches that I had to treat with ibuprofen and with more caffeine (the caffeine almost always made me dizzy).

    If you think you might have MAV please check out the MAV forum by Googling for “MAV forum” (without the quotes).

    I hope this helps.

  • Kumar

    Hello ,

    I do have severe Vertigo and I found today I got this episode after drinking Starbucks coffee. Immediately I goggled and found this forum which answers lot of my questions.

    I am stopping my coffee.

    Thanks everyone who provided valuable suggestions.

  • donna

    I had a bout of vertigo about a month and half ago while I had a bad ear infection. I was on the couch spinning for about 3 days! I was given oral antibiotic, ear drop antibiotic, antivert and a steroid to reduce inflammation in my ear. Been to my MD 3 times finally he cleaned out my ear and said I had fluid behind ear drum but not an infection. Told me to take sudafed to dry fluid up. Well had another two vertigo attacks a week apart. One lasted an hr and the other about 6 hrs. The antivert knocks me out but I have been taking it for fear of another attack. I am 46 with 3 small kids that I have to take here and there. Went to ENT yesterday and 250$ later she wants me to take a 1600$ test to see if I have menniers even though I don’t have all the symptoms. I will def try to remove caffeine from my diet even though I love my coffee!!! and thinking I will take a diuretic everyday too. Any other advise???

  • Kathy C

    I am so glad I found this forum. After 10 days eating 100% raw vegan (at a class like Ann Wigmore used to teach) except for black coffee in the AM and sometimes during the day, I started eating raw dehydrated cocao “cookies” (very small about the size of a nickel). I ate a package of these with my coffee. One morning when awaking (I don’t remember how long after eating the raw cocao cookies) I turned my head and dropped it slightly over the edge of the bed and I experienced the most awful spinning sensation and quickly got on my back and facing the ceiling and it stopped. I was relatively dizzy getting out of bed and had this overall dizzy feeling all day and several days. After awhile it went away and I thought it was gone. I’ve been drinking coffee all along even when it left. But now it’s back. It’s not horrible but just a bad feeling of being a little dizzy and uncomfortable. I think it may be coffee and that’s how I found this forum. The ENT I went to found nothing wrong. All he did was prescribe steoids for 5 days which I declined. I never want to take steroids and won’t ever take them.

    I’ve been searching and searching the Internet for an answer to this dizziness. I am going to stop drinking coffee, especially after reading all of these comments.

    I also read dehydration can cause dizziness. I wouldn’t advise anyone to take diuretics. I think it could make it worse.


  • Michelle

    I am a type 1 diabetic, very tightly controlled with an a1c of 5.6. whenever I drink my morning dose of coffee, my blood sugar ALWAYS shoots up over 200 despite taking an extra dose of insulin. I use an insulin pump and really need some suggestions on how to stop the rises in blood sugar.

  • acampbell

    Hi Michelle,

    I’m not so sure you need to be that concerned with your BG spike given that your A1C is 5.6. (While tight control has it’s benefits, just remember that you have a higher risk of low blood glucose with an A1C this low). At any rate, if your BG comes back down to target 2–3 hours after you drink your coffee, you may not need to change your insulin. If not, though, you will likely need to bolus a small amount of insulin to cover your coffee.

  • Kam

    Why didn’t I find this forum earlier. I would like to reaffirm the conclusion drawn by many – caffeine consumption has a definite link to vertigo. I had a severe attack of vertigo in June 2008. I used to drink 6-8 cups of coffee a day. My vertigo diminished after I reduced my coffee intake. But now and then I make a mistake. If I drink a cup of strong cpffee or tea, I start feeling dizzy, anxious and at times would sufffer from cold sweats. No coffee from now on. I belive that anyone who suffers from vertigo, must immediately stop consuming tea and coffee.

  • Michael

    I had my first bout of vertigo over ten years ago (in 2003) when I was 27. I have had periodic bouts since that time and every single bout (WITHOUT EXCEPTION)has been linked to coffee. Whenever I get a bout of vertigo, therefore, I immediately stop drinking coffee and it goes away within 2 days. I then stay off the coffee for several months. I can then resume drinking coffee without incident for a certain period of time. I used to be able to drink coffee for quite a few months without getting any relapse in the vertigo symptoms. I’ve noticed, however, that the time it takes to develop the vertigo is getting progressively shorter. I’m seriously considering not drinking caffeinated coffee again, as I’m a bit worried by the reduced time it is taking to produce the symptoms. The good news though is that I can drink decaf without incident.

    Anyway, I thought I would mention this experience as, for me, it’s not the one cup of coffee that causes the vertigo, but the sustained use of coffee over a period of time (initially months, but now as little as 2 weeks).