Is Coffee Bad for Kids?

Coffee, Kids and Cocaine

Fathers Day this year I was on the tea and coffee station at the school’s Father’s Day Breakfast. I thought I’d be serving tea and coffee to the dads, so was a bit surprised at the number of kids who asked for tea, and even more surprisingly, coffee (one girl had two cups!). I didn’t know that tea and coffee drinking was a thing for kids – that’s primary school kids, not high school.

I don’t like being the fun police (though my kids would beg to differ), but… after I got over my surprise, I did take a look at whether regular caffeine consumption in kids is a good idea. More and more these days, we forget that kids are kids. They aren’t just smaller versions of adults. Their bodies and brains are different. They don’t have the same biochemical make up as adults. Caffeine doesn’t have the same effect on kids as it does on adults.

Why Caffeinated Drinks Are Not the Best Choice For Kids

Increased anxiety levels: From a meta analysis of the available literature, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand found evidence that caffeine increased anxiety levels in kids at doses of around 3 mg of caffeine per kg of body weight. For your average primary schooler, this is anywhere between 90 mg and 150 mg of caffeine. This is around 2-3 cans of cola a day, 1-2 cups of instant coffee, 2-3 cups of tea, or half a cup of brewed coffee, and 1-2 energy drinks.

Insomnia: Many people (not just kids) find that coffee keeps them awake at night. Kids aged 5-12 need about 11 hours sleep a day, and teenagers 9-10. It’s hard enough to have kids in bed for that length of time given our crazy busy lifestyle these days. When they are in bed, you want them sleeping, not climbing the walls due to the caffeine they’ve had earlier in the day.

Tooth Decay: Coffee is acidic. It can cause a decrease in tooth enamel. This is particularly problematic for kids. It can take several years for enamel on new adult teeth to harden, so kids teeth are more susceptible to the acid content of coffee than are adults’.

Appetite Suppression: Some studies have shown teenagers using caffeine as an appetite suppressant. Even if it is not deliberately consumed for that reason, kids who regularly drink coffee or tea, may eat less, and miss out on nutrients essential for growth.

Bone Loss: 6mg of calcium is lost for every 100 mg of caffeine ingested. For kids, particularly fast growing teens, this is a real issue for bone growth. Caffeine interferes with intestinal calcium absorption. If kids are getting their caffeine through cola drinks, that is even more of an issue. Cola drinks are super acidic. The body will try to get rid of the excess acidity by eliminating it through the urine. It’s been estimated that for one can of cola drink, you’d need to produce thirty times that volume in urine to rid your body of the acidity from the cola. That’s not going to happen. So instead, your body will try to restore the pH balance by using alkaline mineral salts (such as calcium) stored in the body. Calcium is stored in bones and teeth. If the body is using calcium stored in bones and teeth to de-acidify, then it’s not long before bones and teeth become week.

Concentration and Hyperactivity: Caffeine is a stimulant. It can cause hyperactivity and restlessness. It can also cause an inability to concentrate, but on the other side of that coin, it’s moderate consumption of caffeine by kids has also been shown to increase concentration, and also reduce the likelihood of depression.  According to Dr Tomas Depaulis, a research scientist at Vanderbilt University in the US

Addiction: A 2006 study looked at  9-11 year olds who habitually drank on average 109mg of caffeine per day (equivalent to a strong cup of instant coffee). The study showed that after abstention from caffeine overnight, when the kids were given 50mg of caffeine in the morning, the habitual caffeine users in the study reported the reversal of withdrawal symptoms (headache and dulled cognition). The non caffeine users reported no changes in cognitive performance, alertness or headache.   

Here’s the kicker. Chronic Caffeine Consumption Could Increase Susceptibility to Cocaine Addiction

Our kids’ brain systems are maturing during adolescence. These systems include higher -order processing areas of the brain, and also the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system ( you might know that one as the “reward system” or “reward pathway”)

Adolescents respond differently to caffeine as compared to the way adults do. They are more sensitive to caffeine and yet, adolescents who chronically consume caffeine develop a greater tolerance than adults do. So they need more of it to get the same effect.

Caffeine increases the reward effects of cocaine because it increases dopamine neuro-transmission. A study in rats showed that for animals who consumed caffeine during adolescence, these enhanced effects of cocaine were present even when caffeine was withdrawn. So for everyone, cocaine has more effect if you’re a caffeine drinker, but for adults who are not current caffeine consumers, but who did chronically consume caffeine in adolescence, that enhancement of the psychostimulant effects of cocaine was still present, even though the adults had stopped using caffeine.  

To me, it doesn’t seem like the best choice to have young kids and adolescents drinking coffee, given all the good reasons not to.

References

“Effects of Adolescent Caffeine Consumption on Cocaine Sensitivity”
https://www.nature.com/articles/npp2014278#ref20

“Health Effects of Energy Drinks on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adult”
http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/3/511.full

Report From the Expert Working Group on the Safety Aspects of Dietary Caffeine
https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/publications/Documents/safety%20aspects%20of%20dietary%20caffeine.pdf

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