Why Do Caffeine Pills Weird Us Out?

The following article first appeared on Substance.com


Late afternoon Mondays and Wednesdays, during my mandatory writing seminar at Columbia this spring, everyone’s energy levels would take a dip. One day, my classmate Jeff caused a minor ruckus by pulling out a pill bottle and popping a white pill. In response to some suspicious glances—and several cries of “WTF man!”—Jeff explained that he was taking a caffeine pill. The class stared at him blankly.

Jeff began taking caffeine pills about halfway through his first semester of college. A reformed coffee drinker, he found the pills a more cost- and time-effective way to stay alert.

Although 90% of American adults consume caffeine daily in some form, Jeff has experienced largely negative reactions to his pill use. “There’s a major stigma surrounding caffeine pills,” he says. “People tend to think that because it’s a pill, it’s somehow more of a drug than coffee or Red Bull, and that it’s therefore more dangerous.”

Perhaps the white pills are a bit too reminiscent of Adderall, or other prescription drugs with dubious reputations that are commonly and illegally used as study aids around campus. But still, this is caffeine we’re talking about.

From a first date at the neighborhood coffee shop, to Four Loko at a frat party, caffeinated drinks permeate all corners of college life, as well as wider society. They’re form our morning rituals, and our country’s largest commercial franchises. With all the cultural weight behind these drinks carry, it’s easy to forget that caffeine is, in fact, a drug. Maybe my writing class objected to being reminded of this.

Like all drugs, caffeine has potentially harmful side effects. According to a study that appeared in the journal Pediatrics—consisting of meta-analysis of a broad range of previous studies on the effects of caffeinated drinks on teenagers—heavy caffeine consumption has been associated with seizures, mania, stroke and sudden death. However, caffeine in moderation has been shown to improve exercise endurance, cognition and reaction time.

A Hershey’s chocolate bar or a can of Mountain Dew may seem like more innocuous vessels for caffeine delivery, but one or two caffeine pills a day have exactly the same effect—minus a few hundred grams of sugar. So why stop poppin’?

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