September 24, 2007/St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- Without caffeine, we would be a nation of irritable zombies reaching for the aspirin bottle -- at least for a couple of days, until we shook the stuff out of our systems.

Why would we do that, especially with some recent studies elevating caffeine to the status of a near-miracle drug?

Just last month, Japanese scientists reported that drinking three or more cups of coffee a day may cut the risk of colon cancer in women by half. Researchers in France chimed in with the finding that caffeine seemed to help preserve the cognitive skills of older women. That study came out just months after another on men showed similar results.

Earlier studies had already given caffeine lovers a rallying cry by showing that the stimulant -- found in the beans and leaves of many plants, such as coffee shrubs and cacao trees -- can keep them alert, help them concentrate and even improve athletic endurance.

The Downside
Sounds as if we might be doing our bodies a favor by downing Big Gulps of Pepsi with its 3mg of caffeine per ounce, doesn't it?

Not so, say dietitians and other health experts. Do not even get them started on the obesity risk that comes from all the sugar, whipped cream and other extras that often spice up our caffeinated treats.

Too much caffeine itself can cause heartburn, nausea, anxiety, muscle tremors and, in extreme cases, seizures, they point out.

In fact, in what appears to be a trend, caffeine overdoses are sending more and more adolescents and young adults to hospitals.

At the Illinois Poison Center, Dr. Michael Wahl has seen caffeine overdose reports for ages 13-30 rise steadily from 131 in 2002 to 186 last year.

Those numbers are going up just as the amount of caffeine in many consumer products popular among young Americans -- especially diet supplements and so-called energy drinks -- is climbing.

That parallel is not lost on Wahl. The jump in caffeine overdose reports "has to do with availability," he says.

Wahl and others are quick to note that most caffeine consumers never get close to dangerous doses. The red flags go up when about a gram of caffeine gets into the bloodstream. Downing eight cups of brewed coffee could put about that much into your system.

However, someone looking for a quick pick-me-up, say a college student preparing for an all-nighter, could get into the red zone with just a few 200mg tablets of NoDoz chased down by an energy drink such as Monster, with its 160mg of caffeine per 16oz serving.

Even devotees of caffeine in its other forms say the wallops in energy drinks scare them.

Calum Angus, a soccer player at St. Louis University, said he gave the energy drink Red Bull a whirl to see whether it improved his game. The energy drink packs 80mg of caffeine in each 8.3oz can. That is less than the amount in a cup of coffee but more than double the 35mg found in a 12oz can of Coke Classic.

"I never saw signs of enough change that I wanted to carry on drinking it," he says.

Moderation is Urged
In general, if there are any benefits for the body from caffeine, the consensus among health professionals is that they come from using it in moderation.

Dr. Alan Leviton, a professor of neurology at Harvard, has seen the studies that seem to extol the wonders of caffeine, such as links to reduced rates of diseases such as Parkinson's and diabetes. Nevertheless, he says, "I wouldn't encourage people to drink caffeine or coffee for that."

From the October 8, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash