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Handle with Care: Popular Stimulants

Stimulants have been around the block a few times. Since prehistory, people have used a variety of substances to energize, motivate, and inspire. Native North Americans smoked tobacco, the natives of the Andes chewed coca leaves, and Indians and Chinese drank tea. And then there are our Western offerings: sugar, tea, coffee, cigarettes, and stimulant drugs. Even some medications for the relief of headaches, such as Anacin, contain caffeine. Other caffeine tablets, such as Dexatrine, are sold outright as stimulants. In this section we will explore the effects of these substances, as well as their caffeine-containing cousins: chocolate, guarana, mat�, and kola nut. We'll also look at ephedra (ma huang) and yohimbe.

They may be popular, but stimulants are also problematic. All stimulants work by mimicking or triggering the release of the three primary neurotransmitters: dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. That's what makes you feel motivated and high. We learned earlier how downregulation in the brain eventually puts a stop to the fun of getting high. The exact same thing happens with stimulants: overstimulation leads to downregulation, causing the receptor sites to shut down. You keep needing more of the product for the same effect. But how much is too much? And are there some stimulants we can take safely in moderation?

While a substance can make us feel good in the moment, in the long term it can actually be harmful. In one short-term experiment, coffee was shown to heighten alertness (as if we didn't know!), but the researchers weren't looking at the memory impairment or increased blood pressure in habitual coffee drinkers. Also, researchers are not always without bias and may interpret results to fit their preconceptions or desired outcome.

We'll deal with these issues as we discuss each substance in detail. But for now, we can say that some stimulants are never recommended, while others can be acceptable in moderation, depending on the situation.

Popular Stimulants
Sugar: Toxic Treat
Sugar is a fairly recent entry into the stimulant game. Of course, it's always been available in natural sources such as fruit, with its slow-releasing fructose, balanced by the fiber content. Refined sugar, however, only came in with the Industrial Revolution. Today, we can hardly picture a celebration without sweet treats – birthday and wedding cakes, Halloween candy, and Christmas candy canes. Every religion and culture have their celebratory sweets.

How can such a delicious and seemingly harmless treat be so damaging? Stripped of its fiber and nutrients, highly refined sugar is rapidly absorbed and broken down into molecules of glucose that quickly reach the brain to produce feelings of "comfort" or "energy." Sugar binging looks a lot like any other addiction – tolerance develops, and you need more to get the same effect. How serious is that?

Downside of Sugar Excess sugar is bad for you. While sugar is valuable fuel for our cells, it can be toxic when consumed in excess, often causing damage to the arteries, kidneys, eyes, and nerves. The body tries to get it out of the blood and into storage as quickly as possible, but this can then cause a "rebound" low blood-sugar effect with its own set of problems. Some people feel stimulated immediately after eating it, then become cranky and finally go into a low blood-sugar slump.

Caffeine: Brewing Up Trouble
Found in more than one hundred plants throughout the world, caffeine is consumed primarily in beverages. A half-dozen caffeine-containing plants are more widely used than all other herbal materials combined!

More than a thousand years ago, Muslims used coffee for religious rituals. Finally reaching Europe in the seventeenth century, it was seen by the authorities as a dangerous drug. Nonetheless, coffeehouses spread, as did dependence on this new drug. The rest is history. Together with tea, it comprises 97 percent of worldwide caffeine consumption. Some parts of the world use other forms of caffeine – guarana, mat�, and kola nut – which are now becoming more popular in the West.

Caffeine was first isolated from coffee in 1821. The effects of coffee are more potent than those of caffeine alone, since it contains two other stimulants – theophylline and theobromine. These weaker versions of caffeine are also found in decaffeinated coffee. All three are xanthines, alkaloid compounds that occur in both plants and animals.

The main reason we drink caffeine is that it boosts mood and energy. It does this by blocking the receptors for a brain chemical called adenosine, whose function is to stop dopamine release. With less adenosine activity, then, you increase dopamine and adrenaline. You feel alert, motivated, and stimulated, though some people will feel uncomfortable and jittery. Caffeine reaches its peak concentration in 30-60 minutes, after which it is inactivated by the liver, with only half its peak level left after 4-6 hours.

So where's the danger? Caffeine is addictive. Research shows that consuming as little as 100 mg a day can lead to withdrawal symptoms when you stop, including headache, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and drowsiness. It's worth knowing that, while a small cup of instant coffee may contain less than 100 mg of caffeine, a large cup of "designer" coffee can contain as much as 500 mg – five times the "addictive" dose. Even more chemicals are used in manufacturing decaffeinated coffee, and, in the end, it still contains traces of caffeine – about 0.5 mg per 8-ounce cup.

Next: Tea & cola >>

From NATURAL HIGHS: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind/Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good by Hyla Cass and Patrick Holford. Copyright © Hyla Cass, M.D., and Patrick Holford. Used by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit www.penguin.com. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.


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