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Coffee: How much is too much?

Knowing how much caffeine is in coffee will help you better monitor your health

Whether you crave the smell of fresh coffee, drink it for the taste or simply like the occasional pick-me-up, our love affair with coffee is stronger than ever. Nearly half of all Australians consume coffee, and it’s our second most popular non-alcoholic drink after water.

While we may enjoy the ritual, it’s often the caffeine hit that keeps us coming back for more. The question on many drinkers’ lips is whether a coffee dependency has any health risks, and if so, how much coffee should you really drink?

Caffeine facts

Caffeine is a natural substance found in certain plants. It’s known to be a stimulant, speeding up your brain and nervous system. It’s easily absorbed, and when consumed in small amounts like in your morning coffee, caffeine can help you feel more awake and focused. This works by increasing the circulation of chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline, and enhances many of our basic cognitive functions.

How much caffeine is in coffee?

With so many ways to source and brew coffee, there is no single answer. As a general rule, instant coffee typically contains 80-120mg of caffeine per 250ml, and cafe-style options like an espresso or latte sit around 105-110mg per 250ml.

Percolated coffee is substantially higher, averaging 150-240mg per 250ml. A very small amount of caffeine may also be found in decaffeinated products (2-6mg).

How much coffee can I drink?

There’s no denying we love our coffee. A recent survey estimates Australians drink more than 9 cups of coffee per week on average. Previous research yielded a similar result, estimating median daily consumption at 330mls (more than one standard 250ml cup).

The good news is that experts say adults can safely consume up to 400mg of caffeine per day, across the day. A rule of thumb for lovers of instant and barista-style brews is to keep your coffee consumption to 3-4 standard-size cups a day. Pregnant women are encouraged to keep intake under 200mg per day or stop it altogether.

How do you know when you’ve had one cup too many?

Like any stimulant, consuming too much can have a negative impact on your body. If you’re using caffeine for a hit of energy and feeling even more tired after the initial burst, that can suggest something is not quite right. If you’re concerned that you may be overdoing it on the caffeine, signs to look out for include:

  • Dehydration.
  • Dizziness.
  • Headaches.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Restlessness, irritability and/or anxiety.

If you experience these symptoms after drinking coffee, then you may be sensitive to caffeine and may want to cut back your intake or simply avoid caffeine altogether.

If you consume a lot of caffeine and decide you’d like to reduce the amount of coffee you’re drinking, it’s recommended you cut back on your coffee gradually rather than going cold turkey. This will help minimise potential withdrawal effects from the caffeine and allow your body (and habits) to adapt without it.

It’s worth knowing that caffeine withdrawal symptoms may begin within 12 — 24 hours and can last approximately seven days. Withdrawal symptoms vary, but can include fatigue, crankiness, a persistent headache, sweating, muscle pain, and sometimes anxiety.  

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How will coffee affect me long-term?

Beyond the short-term perks of an energy boost and the enjoyment of sipping on the perfect brew, moderate coffee consumption may also have some long-term benefits. Emerging research suggests that coffee may decrease the risk of illnesses such as dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease later in life, and lower risks of dying from cardiovascular disease. There is also some evidence to suggest coffee consumption may be linked to a lower risk of Type 2 Diabetes and may lower the risk of developing some cancers.

While this growing research is likely to be celebrated by coffee lovers, it’s not quite enough to recommend an increase in your daily habit. It’s also worth reminding that some people are quite sensitive to the side effects of coffee, and therefore finding your own sense of moderation is key.

MORE: Can too much stress lead to a bad heart?

Healthy coffee habits

Like many things when it comes to your health, moderation with coffee is the best approach. Here are some tips for finding balance and developing healthier coffee habits.

  • Set a coffee curfew: Decide how late your last coffee of the day will be, and stick to it so that your body can get into a routine. If you’re struggling to fall asleep, it might be best to avoid coffee after lunch.  
  • Forgive the fraction: Ask for a three-quarter shot if you’re trying to cut down on caffeine. Try playing with milk-to-coffee ratios as well.
  • Combine your caffeine quota: Chances are that coffee is not your only source of caffeine. Don’t forget to consider the caffeine you might be getting from other sources, like tea, chocolate, cola and energy drinks.
  • Phase out the sweet stuff: If you’re adding sugar, you’re not only adding calories but you could be missing that pure coffee flavour. Try gradually scaling back the sugar by a small amount every few days – this will allow for a much healthier routine.
  • Withdraw slowly: If you build up a tolerance for caffeine, you can become dependant on coffee to function effectively. The best way to reverse this trend is to cut down gradually, giving your nervous system time to adjust – physically and psychological – without it.

If you love your coffee, there are many healthy ways to enjoy it. Stick to the recommended limits and be aware that everyone will respond to caffeine differently, so think of your body (and mind) as the best measure of what works for you.

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