Faculty Editor: Professor Jeffrey DaCosta

It would be hard to imagine college life without coffee. Some students greet every morning with a steaming cup of it. Others plan to meet over it. And still, others view it as a necessity for any late-night essay. While coffee is sometimes consumed solely for taste, most consumers are seeking one particular ingredient: caffeine.

Today, caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug2, or substance that alters brain function, when compared to alcohol, tobacco, and other psychoactive drugs. This consumption is not just limited to coffee: teas, sodas, and energy drinks join coffee in a burgeoning multi-billion market4. An estimated 1.6 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day1,  and over the past several years, caffeine consumption among college students has become increasingly popular.

On the surface, the reason for the use of caffeine is uncomplicated: to combat sleep deprivation. A recent study conducted by the University of Kentucky reported that over 76% of the surveyed students used caffeine to stay awake4. But below the surface lies a myriad of issues. In the brain, adenosine binds to receptors to induce sleepiness. Caffeine works by binding to these adenosine receptors, thereby preventing feelings of sleepiness5. Students often desire this feeling of alertness, which which can spiral into caffeine addiction, overuse, and visits to the emergency room. From 2007 to 2011, the number of national emergency department visits associated with energy drink consumption has doubled, with the new number being over 20,000 visits9.

On the other hand, discontinuing caffeine consumption can produce concerning withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches and decreased speed of motor tasks5. Even those who do not experience intoxication or withdrawal can experience negative effects of caffeine consumption. Moderate and high users reported higher anxiety and depression scores, compared to those who do not consume caffeine, and high users reported significantly higher levels of psychophysiological disorders3.

For students specifically, multiple studies have been conducted to analyze whether caffeine improves or threatens academic performance. While some studies have found that caffeine can enhance cognition, others have found that a common side effect, sleep deprivation, impairs attention and alertness5. Furthermore, some studies have found no correlation between caffeine and GPA, despite the popular belief that caffeine can improve a student’s GPA. For example, a recent case study of students at the University of Kentucky revealed no significant association between daily caffeine consumption and GPA8.However, there is still much to be researched and analyzed, as caffeine addiction is a multifaceted issue, affecting and being affected by factors such as a student’s age, personality, and more. As more research examines these factors, for now, as with many things in life, moderation is key. The U.S. Food and Drug Association (FDA) has recently cited 400 milligrams a day (a generous four to five cups) as a safe consumption amount for healthy adults6. Indeed, caffeine can be part of a healthy diet. Some studies have discovered that caffeine could improve memory and reduce risks of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease7. Caffeine addiction and its associated problems can arise when people consume too much, and what is considered “too much” is different for everyone5. Thus, caffeine consumers, including college students, should err on the side of safety by following safe consumption recommendations and avoiding consumption in the late afternoon and evenings.


1. Cappelletti, S., Piacentino, D., Sani, G., & Aromatario, M. (2015). Caffeine: cognitive and physical performance enhancer or psychoactive drug?. Current neuropharmacology, 13(1), 71–88. doi:10.2174/1570159X13666141210215655

2. Ferré S. (2013). Caffeine and Substance Use Disorders. Journal of caffeine research, 3(2), 57–58. doi:10.1089/jcr.2013.0015

3. Gilliland, K., & Andress, D. (1981). Ad lib caffeine consumption, symptoms of caffeinism, and academic performance. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 138(4), 512-514.

4. McIlvain, Gary Eugene, “CAFFEINE CONSUMPTION PATTERNS AND BELIEFS OF COLLEGE FRESHMEN” (2008). University of Kentucky Doctoral Dissertations. 638.

5. O’Callaghan, F., Muurlink, O., & Reid, N. (2018). Effects of caffeine on sleep quality and daytime functioning. Risk management and healthcare policy, 11, 263–271. doi:10.2147/RMHP.S156404

6. Office of the Commissioner. (2018, December 12). Consumer Updates – Spilling the Beans: How Much Caffeine is Too Much? Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm350570.htm

7. Sc, Y., & Muralidhara (2016). Beneficial Role of Coffee and Caffeine in Neurodegenerative Diseases: A Minireview. AIMS public health, 3(2), 407–422. doi:10.3934/publichealth.2016.2.407

8. Simpson, Emma, “PERCEIVED STRESS, CAFFEINE CONSUMPTION, AND GPA OF UNDERGRADUATE STUDENTS AT A LARGE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY” (2016). Theses and Dissertations–Dietetics and Human Nutrition. 46. https://uknowledge.uky.edu/foodsci_etds/46

9. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (January 10, 2013). The DAWN Report: Update on Emergency Department Visits Involving Energy Drinks: A Continuing Public Health Concern. Rockville, MD.

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