Todd wanted to win the upcoming U.S. Cycling Race in Belgium, and he was prepared to do anything to give himself an edge – except take drugs. He asked for advice from a veteran bicycling racer. “Drink lots of caffeine carry coffee during the race,” he was told. “It’ll give you a kick.”
During the race, Todd gulped flasks of strong coffee. But he didn’t race well and had to stop often to urinate. Caffeine often acts as a diuretic, causing the body to eliminate water. He also ended up with other side effects from all that caffeine: an upset stomach, a bad headache, and body shakes.
He didn’t sleep well for a couple nights.
Many people, including Todd, forget or don’t know that caffeine is a drug. It’s a stimulant, one of many available. You’ve probably heard about cocaine, crack, and “ice.” These are illegal stimulants. But also, them are three types of legal stimulants: caffeine, prescription medicines – drugs that are bought and taken only with a doctor’s supervision or prescription – and over-the-counter (OTC) or nonprescription drugs. Although these drugs are legal, and in the case of caffeine, part of our everyday lives, they can be abused.
All stimulants excite the central nervous system by increasing the head rate, breathing, and blood pressure. They also give people an “up” feeling and make them feel more alert and peppy. But that’s not all stimulants do.
Caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the United States. Do you or your parents drink coffee in the morning? It’s the caffeine in the coffee that delivers an energy jolt. Tea, cocoa, colas, and many other soft drinks also contain caffeine, as do chocolate and many OTC and prescription drugs: pain relievers, cold and allergy medicines, diuretics, and diet pills.
People sometimes become addicted to caffeine, and need to take it regularly. These people are addicts. An addict is someone who is dependent on a drug and craves its effects. If the person can no longer get that drug – in this case, caffeine – withdrawal sets in. Common caffeine withdrawal symptoms include headaches and jittery and tired feelings.
Caffeine whether consumed in coffee, soft drinks, or in any other form – affects everyone differently. Some people get jittery, nervous, or restless; others feel energetic. Caffeine can change sleep patterns by delaying sleep, or it can cause insomnia (inability to sleep), especially if consumed in the evening.
For most people, experts agree, an occasional or daily soft drink or cup of coffee (less than 240 mg) generally causes no harm. However, heavy daily use – the amount in four cups of coffee (600 mg) – can result in sleep problems, restlessness, depression, stomach pains, rapid heartbeat, and anxiety. Consuming even higher amounts of caffeine can cause headaches, muscle pain, shaking, and ringing in the ears. Because of caffeine’s effects, both the National College Athletic Association and the International Olympic Committee have set limits on the amount of caffeine their athletes may consume.
Many OTC drugs – such as cold and allergy remedies, diet pills, and those that claim to keep people awake – contain caffeine. One to two tablets of an OTC stimulant or diet aid equals one to two cups of coffee in caffeine content. Pain relievers and cold/allergy medicines contain a little less than that. Experts warn that diet pills do not work. They suppress the appetite for only about four to five days, then they lose their effectiveness. Diet pills usually contain two types of stimulants: caffeine and decongestants. (Decongestants usually are taken to relieve a stuffy nose).
In the past, amphetamines were prescribed by doctors to treat several health problems in children and adults. Though they are not prescribed as often today, some people use them illegally. Amphetamines mimic the effects of adrenaline, a naturally occurring substance in the body that produces a natural high or feeling of energy. Amphetamines can make a person feel more awake, alert, and energetic. They also suppress the appetite, cause blurry vision, and make your mouth dry. Long-term use or large amounts of amphetamines can cause insomnia, weight loss, and anxiety or unease.
Illegal amphetamines are made in home laboratories, usually as strong-smelling tablets, capsules, crystals, or chunks. Most often, people who use illegal amphetamines swallow or inject them.
The strongest amphetamine is methamphetamine. Very pure methamphetamine forms crystals, often called “ice.” Usually smoked, “ice” is highly addictive and dangerous because its effects are so strong and fast. All amphetamines taken in heavy doses or over a long time can result in extreme anxiety and malnutrition, and all methamphetamines can cause seizures, coma, and death from an overdose.
Many Names: One Illegal Drug
Cocaine, an illegal stimulant, has dozens of street names, including coke, toot, nose, snow, rock, and crack. Crack is the most dangerous form of cocaine because it’s absorbed into the body at a faster rate. Usually smoked in a waterpipe, crack enters the bloodstream and brain within seconds.
The effects of cocaine and crack are similar to those of amphetamines and adrenaline combined. A small dose gives a short, intense high, usually followed by a longer period of less intense excitement. Depression soon follows, often leaving the user craving more cocaine or crack. One major difference between cocaine and amphetamines: Cocaine’s effects last less than 45 minutes; whereas the effects of amphetamines can last for hours or even days.
If large doses are taken, cocaine and crack can produce seizures, heart attacks, strokes, and high fevers. Smoking crack or using cocaine causes the blood vessels and heart to begin working violently all at once, which could cause sudden death. Drugs obtained on the street often are cut or diluted with fillers – anything from baby powder to PCP and rat poison. These fillers are often the cause of death.
Too many stimulants in our food and drink or OTC drugs can mean trouble. If, for example, you take a cold pill, drink coffee, eat chocolate ice cream, and then go cycling or skating, you may suffer some of the same side effects that caused trouble for Todd. Exercise causes the body to produce its own natural stimulants. Combine that with some other stimulants, and you could overload your system.
OTC stimulants, although not as powerful as the illegal stimulants, can produce serious side effects if abused. People abuse these drugs by taking more than the dosage listed on the container, because they think the increased amount will help them lose weight faster or keep them awake longer. But these higher dosages lead to trouble.
Abusing stimulants increases the heart rate and blood pressure, impairs concentration, decreases the appetite, and causes insomnia and dehydration. These drugs may also delay fatigue, which means that the abuser may not get enough sleep and could even cause a serious accident.
Always check any drug label to determine the ingredients and dosage amounts. Unless they’re prescribed by your doctor, though, it’s best to avoid OTC diet pills and other stimulants.