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The debatable drug Featured

5:01am EDT January 2, 2002
The neighboring houses are still dark when Harold Dennison rises each morning. His 5:30 a.m. ritual includes strong coffee, which he refers to as "the fog lifter." It's little stronger than the several million cups Americans reach for each day.

Dennison, a process engineer at a manufacturing company in Greater Cleveland, proudly boasts of 10 to 12 cups a day, admitting he's addicted to the caffeine.

"I know it's bad for you but it's addicting…it's like smoking," says Dennison.

His argument, however, is he stays away from more harmful drinks like beer and liquor so the health risk is worth it. Or is it?

At any given company, on any given morning, it's standing-room-only by the coffeepot. And as the Java brews, people slowly come to life. In fact, 110 million Americans reach for the legal, addictive stimulant - three times more than soft drinks and four times more than beer - with little concern for the habit or side effects.

But like anything that seems too good to be true, the pick-me-up carries a price. Physicians argue over consumption leads to addiction and like alcohol, carries definite health risks.

The perk in coffee is caffeine, a crystalline alkaloid that affects the brain and artificially lessens fatigue. For the average drinker of two to four cups a day, the drink is relatively harmless.

However, over consumption causes insomnia and jitters, injection into human muscles causes paralysis and a sudden accumulation in your body, say 10 grams or more, results in death.

While few people are caught main-lining coffee, the perked, dripped or instant drink has gained drastic popularity with coffeehouses becoming the savvy meeting place. Mom and dad's cup of coffee has been replaced with expresso, latte and even iced versions. And no matter how it's served, the effect is the same.

According to Kurt Donsbach, Ph.D., an expert in holistic healthcare and author of more than 50 books and booklets, one or more cups of coffee causes your stomach temperature to rise 10 to 15 degrees. Your heart beats faster as blood vessels around the heart widen and those around the brain narrow. Your metabolic rate increases as your kidney manufacture and discharge up to 100 percent more urine.

John Millonzi says he settles for about a cup a day of the brew and isn't addicted. As president of Falken Roth, a wholly owned U.S subsidiary of the forklift arm manufacturer based in Germany, Millonzi is no different than any other busy executive - starting early and ending the day late. He frequently travels between offices in Memphis, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Perry, Ohio and says he has enough stress without adding physical stress from caffeine.

Rather than opt for an artificial boost, Millonzi reaches for his running shoes, jogging three to five miles a day to keep his energy up. He says people who exercise regularly tend not to do abusive things to their bodies like smoking or excessive coffee drinking.

"I just feel better when I run and work out," Millonzi says. "I think the coffee addiction is really just about habit."

Coffee, i.e. caffeine, consumed in normal amounts hasn't been proven to be physically harmful. Tell that to the anxious executive with a trembling hand and dark circles from insomnia. Habit or not, coffee meets two criteria for addiction - it's tolerated by the body in increasingly high doses and its absence creates withdrawal symptoms.

The last characteristic - loss of control - can be judged by your temperment before that first morning cup.

The truth and consequences of caffeine

* Caffeine is classified as a methylxanthine, a stimulant to the central nervous system.
* More than 80 percent of Americans regularly consume caffeine, either from coffee, soft drinks, tea, over-the-counter pain medications or chocolates - making caffeine the world's most widely used drug.
* Soft drinks average between 40 to 60 milligrams of caffeine per eight ounces while caffeine levels vary greatly in coffee - between 66 and 280 per cup - depending on how it is prepared.
* A 1994 study by the American Medical Association indicates coffee drinkers suddenly deprived of coffee suffer headaches, fatigue and depression.
* The study also indicates less than five cups of coffee a day or equivalent consumption in cola or chocolate is not harmful to most people unless shakiness, irregular heart beats or sleep interference occurs.
* A normal level of caffeine is 200 milligrams daily and yet 50 percent of Americans consume more than 300 milligrams every day.
* The effects of caffeine consumption remain with you for six hours.
* An overdose of caffeine causes headaches, irritability, upset stomach, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and possibly ulcers.
* Physicians are known to prescribe caffeine pills as a cardiac stimulant and mild diuretic.
* The eventual effect of high levels of caffeine in your bloodstream is drowsiness rather than perkiness.
* Drinking unfiltered coffee may cause a short-term increase in LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
* Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors in the brain causing cell activity to increase, blood vessels to constrict, and the release of adrenaline by the pituitary gland.
* A two-week study of coffee drinkers at the Duke University Medical Center showed people consuming caffeine had higher blood pressure than non-coffee drinkers - an average of three points higher.
* On the up side, a study by the American Chemical Society indicates that consumption of one to three cups of coffee daily shows no affect on the area of the brain involved with addictions.

I need coffee