Who's asking: Jennifer Jordan, Wisconsin
Jen asks this question on behalf of a certain Midwestern publishing whiz kid she knows: "The man drinks Red Bull allllllllllll day, and as a good friend, I worry."
I would worry about anyone with a taste for Red Bull -- I'm pretty sure that stuff is nothing more than barely-diluted Mountain Dew syrup -- but the caffeine question is a good one.
Caffeine, a naturally-occurring plant alkaloid, is one of many proofs (in my mind) of a God who loves us and wants us to be happy. Caffeine in small to moderate amounts is not only not harmful, but beneficial. It stimulates the central nervous system and acts as a mild diuretic. It is an effective treatment for both migraine headaches and various breathing difficulties, and some studies suggest that drinking coffee can help counteract the liver damage inflicted by alcohol. It does not build up in the body over time.
As always, however, too much of a good thing can mess you up, and I can personally testify to the horrors of caffeine overdose.
Many years ago, I stayed up all night to study for an exam, consuming several pots of double-strength Constant Comment tea. I had my last cup just before leaving for the exam. About 20 minutes into the exam, a powerful wave of wellbeing washed through me. I felt omniscient and omnipotent, as if I could get up and fly around the room. Bluebook in front of me, I prepared to write the greatest German exam in Georgetown history...
Then my face flushed bright red, and I broke out into a cold sweat. My hands started to shake, and my heart started pounding so hard I could hear the blood in my ear canals. I felt dizzy and nauseated, and nearly passed out.
Instead I stumbled to the restroom, where the night's tea made a hasty exit. My symptoms disappeared immediately, leaving me so tired I could barely stay awake for the exam.
According to the medical descriptions of caffeine overdose, my experience was typical. The body rids itself of caffeine quickly and efficiently in most cases of overdose, but in extreme situations, people can go into cardiac arrhythmia and convulsions, and -- on rare occasion -- even die.
Chronic caffeine overuse is a different issue. Caffeine sensitivity varies wildly among individuals. Because caffeine is physically addictive, people do build up a tolerance to it. The real problem with excessive use of caffeine over time is what happens when you try to quit, or can't maintain your regular consumption levels. Caffeine withdrawal can cause paralyzing headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, nausea, depression and -- surprisingly -- sleeplessness. If you want to quit caffeine, taper off over time rather than trying to go cold turkey. If you're a hard-core addict at risk of being cut off from your supply, carry a bottle of Excedrin with you; two Excedrin have enough caffeine to fend off the worst symptoms of withdrawal.