VITAMINS & SUPPLEMENTS

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Delicious Drug: The Good and Bad of Caffeine

By David Toussaint

We all know the type. The guy who cringes over creatine, pooh-poohs protein powder, and claims he just says no to all supplements. Yet when it comes to drinking coffee, he never hits the gym without first juicing up on Starbucks. Consuming caffeine before exercising is not only common; it's considered by many to be an essential pre-workout ritual.

To be sure, caffeine is a performance-enhancing supplement used by many athletes to kick it into high gear, and only the most elite sporting events—such as the Olympics—ban it at high doses. But before you start downing a cup before each workout, you need to know the truth about caffeine: the good, the bad, and the really ugly teeth.

The Good
Caffeine speeds up your heart rate, which not only gives you more energy, but also helps you lose weight. If you're prone to headaches (sometimes a problem for morning athletes), a little caffeine can help ease the pain because it opens up the blood vessels. (Note, however, this double-edge sword: By drinking caffeine regularly you risk withdrawal headaches if you don't drink caffeine in the morning.)

These days, however, advanced heart rate isn't the only reason guys are hitting the java. Studies now show that there may be other ergonomic, or performance-enhancing, effects of caffeine, particular for endurance sports. While the exact cause of these benefits is still not fully understood, studies have focused on how caffeine metabolizes in the brain, increasing levels of energy-enhancing fatty acids, while at the same time storing muscle glycogen for the first 15 minutes of your workout before it's released—a big bonus for endurance sports like running or swimming.

Other studies have shown that caffeine releases glucose, giving you an extra jolt of energy, and increases levels of dopamine, which can prolong endurance. (Another possible double-edged sword: Dopamine is also thought to be tied to caffeine addiction, so one man's performance booster may be another man's addiction causer.)

Studies show that caffeine appears to work best in pure form, so drinking a cup of steaming brew before an athletic event won't be as beneficial as taking a caffeine pill like NoDoz. Studies also show that the less you normally drink, the more benefits you'll receive from ingesting caffeine before a workout. In other words, if you want to feel the ergogenic benefits of caffeine at race time, you probably shouldn't ingest much caffeine on a regular basis.

Even if you don't care about performance improvements and just use caffeine to get out of bed and make it to the gym, it's important that you don't have too much. The illusion caffeine gives you that you're more alert than you actually are is a surefire way to strain your body by working it too hard.

"Caffeine can make you feel like Superman," says Los Angeles-based nutritionist Julie Feldman, MPH, RD, founder of CreativeNutrition.com. "But you might overdo it and cause injury to yourself."

Injuries are not the only problem with too much of a buzz-on. A lot of caffeine and no food can cause you to suffer withdrawal before your workout's finished. You can also suffer from irritability and nausea. For most people, one cup of coffee or two cans of soda should be more than enough. Any more than that and you're setting yourself up for a crash landing. (Although various studies recommend two milligrams of caffeine per pound of body weight before exercise, these statistics are not always the most reliable guidelines, as your caffeine stimulation level depends on how much you normally consume.)

These days, caffeine intake (whether from coffee, sports drinks, or even gels) has become increasingly popular with all different types of gay athletes, from muscle-men wannabes to hardcore athletes. Although there's no way to know exact statistics on how many guys are joining the craze, Feldman says caffeine is now almost de rigueur in the exercise world—just check out the myriad brands of caffeinated drinks on the market. Although the main goal is to increase athletic performance, Feldman also attributes the rise to the fact that people get less sleep nowadays and need the kick. "There's nothing unusual anymore about seeing guys at Gold's Gym drinking lattes during workouts," she says. "It's the same with high-school kids and their sports drinks."

The Bad
Just because it's acceptable, however, doesn't always make it a good thing. Since caffeine affects the nervous system, over-stimulating it can throw your adrenaline system off and cause chronic fatigue, which Feldman equates to "burning the candle at both ends." She says that you should always balance out your caffeine intake with relaxation techniques such as yoga or massage.

Caffeine is a diuretic, so the more you drink it, the more you're draining your body of those important nutrients you've been so proud to ingest in the first place. That drainage occurs in the form of urine, so unless it's water sports you're engaging in, make you're your workout booster isn't driving you to the men's room every couple of minutes. Since "diuretic" can also translate to diarrhea, doing a trial bathroom-resistant test run is especially recommended before an endurance event—you don't want to lose all of those minutes you shaved off your marathon time standing in line at the Port-a-John.

Most important, if you have any underlying heart problem, caffeine and exercise can increase the risk of damage. While the debate still lingers over how much caffeine contributes to heart disease, studies have shown that it does raise your blood pressure. Since blood pressure rises when you're active, it's possible that you're doing double damage. Coffee and other caffeinated products can cause both heartburn and ulcers. In the latest scientific twist, studies have now shown that decaffeinated coffee increases levels of LDL (the "bad" cholesterol), so even a shot of non-jittery brew can be bad for you. Make sure your doctor knows of your habit and get thoroughly checked out to find out if Joe is right for you.

A Few More Negatives
If someone's referring to the color of your teeth, a "shit-eating grin" is not a compliment. The brown stuff's just going to keep darkening them, so the longer you drink it, the more teeth-whitening dental sessions you'll be paying for. Caffeine dries out the skin, making your face less pleasant to the touch, and causing—clutch the Kabbalah bracelet!—premature wrinkles. Make sure that, along with your coffee, you drink plenty of water, (Madonna-approved, or otherwise)...

Caffeine interrupts sleep habits, so, whichever way you're consuming it, stop after two in the afternoon. All-nighters are for college kids, not athletes.

Finally, if it's just the caffeine you want (and not the coffee or all those fancy flavors), get your fix from green or black tea, which one-ups the competition with disease-fighting antioxidants. Health stores now carry a caffeine product called Yerba Mate, a powder that you can add to your favorite beverage.

David Toussaint is the author of the book Gay and Lesbian Weddings: Planning the Perfect Same-Sex Ceremony. A professional playwright, short-story, and travel writer, he is currently at work on a novel. You can reach him at www.davidtoussaint.com.