Caffeine, alcohol, how much is too much?

Caffeine, alcohol, how much is too much-

One of my friends asked me this a while ago. And what a great question. So juicy. So incendiary. So guaranteed to put people on the defensive.

Now before get into this, I need you to know something: I’m no foodie fundamentalist. I don’t believe in extremes. I don’t believe in labelling foods good or bad, naughty or nice.

I believe in balance. I believe that some foods serve your body and that some don’t. But also that some of those of those in the latter camp are good for you in ways that run much deeper than nutrition. Good for the soul, if you will. The key is having them in the right way.

Despite being all kinds of athlete, I grew up in something of a boozy culture (for non-Brit readers, we call this ‘the UK’). From about age 16, almost everyone in my friendship group drank – to excess. And so did I, on occasion. I was only when I left advertising that I cut back a lot. I love wine. But I don’t like myself on more than two glasses, and I don’t like my life when I drink more than one or two nights a week. My early bird tendencies go out the window. My energy flags and I just feel kind of lazy. And lazy ain’t gonna get a kickass life off the ground is it?

Caffeine on the other hand, has never been much of a problem. I adore the aroma of coffee but have never been mad about the taste, and rely on it only in genuine energy emergencies, when – because I hardly ever drink it – it’s terribly effective. Having weaned myself off black tea about four years ago, I drink 1–2 cups of green tea a day (which has half the caffeine of coffee), the occasional matcha and various other caffeine-free herbals.

Shall we take a look at the ups and downs of both? Why not.


The good:

  • Stimulates alertness, improves mental performance and concentration
  • Gives you a sense of wellbeing, happiness, energy and sociability
  • Can enhance athletic performance (it’s thought by decreasing the use of glycogen stores during workouts) and reduce muscle pain
  • The antioxidant content helps stabilise free radicals
  • Possibly stimulates muscles to burn fat and sugar more efficiently – thus helping prevent diabetes, and, er, chubbiness

The bad:

  • It raises blood pressure. I think we all know that’s not a good thing.
  • Increases stress hormones and elevates perception of stress
  • Can cause irritability, restlessness, insomnia and agitation
  • It may impair the action of insulin, leading to a rise in blood sugar levels.
  • Can cause digestive muscles to contract, leading to abdominal pain, diarrhoea and increased bowel movements
  • Inhibits the absorption of some nutrients and causes urinary excretion of calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron.
  • Can exacerbate PMS, osteoporosis, infertility, miscarriage, low birth weight and menopausal problems
  • It speeds up the natural decrease in hormone production as we age = faster ageing
  • It stimulates the adrenal glands, which can lead to adrenal fatigue, as well as a load of other health disorders.

So, down to the nitty gritty. How much caffeine is too much?

The powers that be seem to agree that ‘safe’ caffeine consumption amounts to about 2–4 cups a day. Personally I’m not interested in skirting the edges of safe. I’d rather be in the realms of healthy.

I advise clients to stick to two cups a day. One in the morning (coffee drinkers always seem to need a jumpstart) and one just before or after lunch. Coffee has a half life of six hours. So if you have your last at 3pm there’s still half a shot in your system at 9, which can lead to interrupted sleep.


Caffeine, alcohol, how much is too much--

The good:

  • The antioxidants in red wine – called polyphenols – may help prevent heart disease by increasing good cholesterol and protecting against artery damage and blood clots. One poly in particular – the widely hyped resveratrol – is thought to be behind this.

The bad:

  • Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways and can affect the way the brain looks and works – changing mood and behaviour, thinking, focus and coordination.
  • Long-term drinking is associated with heart problems, liver inflammation, pancreas issues and certain cancers.
  • Drinking weakens the immune system. Binge drinking in particular slows your body’s ability to ward off infections.
  • Moderate alcohol consumption (more than two drinks per week) can reduce fertility by up to 50% and moderate to high alcohol consumption has been linked with higher rates of miscarriage.

So, how much is too much?

Official guidelines in the UK (because we just LOVE to make things complicated) state that women ‘should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, no more than three units in any one day’, and that men ‘should drink no more than 21 units of alcohol per week and no more than four units in any one day.’ It’s recommended that all of us have at least two alcohol-free days a week.

BTW, a unit = one 25ml shot, 1/3 of a pint of beer and half a small glass of wine.

The Americans make it easy: ‘Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as having up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.’

Note: When doing your booze calculations, remember that alcohol consumption and its effect varies based on your body type and size. And it’s always best to drink with meals.

So peeps, that’s the official lowdown. But what says Liz?

I think you don’t need the NHS or a website or a health blogger to tell you how much is too much.

In fact, I think outsourcing our limits and boundaries to third parties is part of the reason we seem, collectively speaking, to be so messed up about what is and isn’t acceptable to put in our bodies. Face it. When it comes to caffeine and alcohol, you already know how much is too much. And I bet it’s less than your drinking right now.

It’s up to you to work out how much you love coffee and alcohol, how it affects you – positively and negatively – how much is bad for your body and how much is good for you soul. Be brutally honest.

Here’s some brutal honesty from me.

If you can’t wake the hell up or make it through the afternoon without coffee, you’re drinking too much. If you’re on edge a lot, ditto. If your periods are a pain, if your skin is dry and your digestion a problem, you need to cut back.

If you drink every night of the week, that’s too much. If you’re regularly bleary eyed and dry-mouthed when you wake up, again – too much. If you’ve got a spare tyre hanging on for dear life, cut down.

To really gauge how something is affecting you, take a reset. Cut it out for a week, deal with the withdrawal symptoms (yes, both caffeine and alcohol are drugs so yes, you will probably experience some kind of withdrawal), and see how you feel. Then make a conscious decision about how you want to reintroduce them. Make yourself some rules.

These are mine

  1. Coffee only in energy emergencies or in organic artisan coffee shops when it’d be rude not to because the guy with the hipster tache is slaving over every cup.
  1. 2/3 glasses of wine with girly giggles, family meals and sometimes one glass in the bath. Holidays and Christmas – enjoy but don’t be an idiot.

So, alternatives

Coffee alternatives:

Well green tea is rather a no-brainer. Matcha even more so. Yerba Mate tea also packs a punch and a lovely smokiness too. Barley and chicory coffee are having a bit of a moment, although most serious coffee drinkers report that they taste like crap. If you want a milky boost, I recommend making a healthy hot chocolate with raw cacao powder (seriously energising – this is not a bedtime drink), almond milk, a healthy-ish sweetener like stevia, date syrup or honey, and some spices like cinnamon or nutmeg.

Alcohol alternatives:

Drink grape juice and those fake pseudo-wine drinks (like Schloer) and you might as well be drinking sugar. Don’t bother. The best booze alternative for my money used to be something of a health freak secret. Well, no more. Kombucha. Kombucha is – wait for it – a naturally fizzy fermented tea. It sounds yuck. It’s absolutely fabulous. It tastes faintly beer-y, is super energising and just so damn good for your gut bacteria. And if the idea of fermented tea puts you off, that’s just fine. All the more for me. If it doesn’t, buy it at Whole Foods, Planet Organic and maybe even your yoga studio.

That’s it! And if you have your own rules for booze/black stuff consumption, I would love to hear them. 

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