Teen Issues

Caffeine and Its Effects on Teenagers

Need endless coffee or energy drinks to get through the day? Learn about the health risks of caffeine for teens, caffeine dependency, and how to safely cut back.

Reviewed by Karin Evans, PhD, RD, CIEC, a Certified Registered Dietitian at Top Nutrition Coaching working with clients interested in developing a balanced and mindful relationship with food that supports their mental and physical health

What is caffeine?

Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance in coffee beans, guarana seeds, kola nuts, tea leaves, cacao pods, and many other plants. When consumed, it acts as a psychoactive drug, meaning it alters your state of mind. More specifically, it stimulates your nervous system, making you feel more alert.

Caffeine can affect your mood, making you feel more nervous, irritable, or anxious, for example. As a stimulant, it can also have physical effects, temporarily raising your blood pressure and breathing rate.

You might associate caffeine with coffee and energy drinks. However, it appears in a variety of products, ranging from tea and chocolate to soda and supplements.

If you’re a teen who enjoys caffeine, you’re certainly not alone. Caffeine is easily accessible and well-advertised. Most adolescents consume caffeine, whether it’s an occasional cup of coffee or a regular energy drink. Like adults, many like how these drinks perk them up during the day. Others simply enjoy the taste of their favorite coffee, tea, or soda.

There’s also a social element to caffeine’s popularity with teens. Many adolescents enjoy meeting friends for a coffee or soda. If your parents and peers regularly drink it, it can just seem completely normal to do the same. You may even feel a little more mature with a cup of coffee in your hand.

Caffeine’s limitations

Coffee and soda may seem like convenient “remedies” for an energy boost when you begin to tire during the day. However, the truth about caffeine’s energizing effects is a little more complicated. Caffeine actually works by blocking the effects of a chemical in your body that promotes sleepiness. In other words, you’re not receiving an energy boost, you just don’t experience fatigue.

On top of that, caffeine can come with plenty of drawbacks. In the short term, it can leave you feeling jittery or disrupt your sleep. In the longer term, regularly consuming too much can worsen certain mental health problems or even lead to caffeine dependency.

Whether you’re a teen who’s obsessed with energy drinks or a parent worried about your child, there are plenty of ways to cut back and replace caffeine with healthier, more effective energy boosts.

How much caffeine is healthy?

Caffeine doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Some people can drink multiple cups of coffee a day without any effects, while others can get the jitters from even a small black tea. Factors such as age, sex, body size, and genetics can all play a role in caffeine sensitivity.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises that healthy adults stick to no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day. However, the recommended daily limit for adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 years old is much lower: 100 milligrams. Some energy drinks contain two or three times that amount of caffeine in one serving.

Why the lower limit? As a teen, you’re still in an important phase of physical development, and it’s not fully understood how the drug may affect your cardiovascular function, nervous system, and overall health. Some research has shown that too much caffeine can have particularly detrimental effects on developing minds and bodies.

Therefore, it’s helpful to understand how much caffeine you’ll find in everyday products. Energy drinks can carry especially high amounts.

ProductCaffeine content
16-ounce can of Bang Energy Drink300mg
12-ounce can of Prime Energy200mg
16-ounce coffee170mg
12-ounce can of Red Bull114mg
8-ounce brewed coffee85mg
8-ounce cappuccino80mg
Single espresso shot64mg
20-ounce bottle of soda60 to 120mg
8-ounce brewed black tea55mg
12-ounce can of soda35 to 70mg
8-ounce iced tea30mg
1 cold relief medicine tablet30mg
8-ounce hot chocolate9mg
1 Hershey Chocolate Bar9mg
8-ounce chocolate milk5mg

Negative effects of too much caffeine

Although you may initially enjoy the effects of caffeine, too much of it can lead to uncomfortable side effects. You may be physically shaky or feel an increase in racing thoughts, for example. Nervousness itself can become a distraction, making it harder to focus.

Too much caffeine can also have more serious consequences for your mental health and physical well-being, such as:

Impaired heart function. Caffeine can temporarily spike your heart rate and blood pressure. This can lead to issues such as irregular heartbeat and heart palpitations (that unpleasant fluttering sensation in your chest) even in people who don’t have known heart conditions. The risk of complications rises even higher when caffeine is mixed with other drugs, such as alcohol.

Calcium depletion. Some studies indicate that caffeine may increase calcium depletion, leading to bone loss. This may be especially consequential to the developing bodies of teenagers. Other research shows that soft drinks are also associated with an increased risk for bone fractures.

Insomnia or sleep disruptions. Consuming too much caffeine can make it difficult to physically and mentally wind down at the end of the day and get to sleep. Lack of sleep can then lead to additional problems, such as daytime fatigue, higher stress, irritability, and difficulty focusing. There may also be long-term consequences. Teens require plenty of sleep for healthy development because a growth hormone is released when you’re resting. A consistent lack of sleep may impact your physical growth.

Stunted brain development. In the short term, caffeine leads to an increase in activity in the brain. However, there’s also some evidence that it might hinder brain development in young drinkers. This could be, in part, because caffeine affects sleep, which then impacts brain growth.

Upset stomach. Caffeine increases stomach acid, which can lead to intestinal issues, such as heartburn or nausea. These issues can be made even worse if you’re feeling stressed out. Caffeine is also a mild diuretic, meaning you’ll need to make more trips to the bathroom.

Effect on appearance. Caffeine can decrease your skin’s production of collagen, a protein associated with skin elasticity. A decrease in this important protein may result in premature wrinkles. Coffee in particular is well known to stain teeth, leaving your smile less than pearly.

[Read: Refined Carbs and Sugar: The Diet Saboteurs]

Caffeine’s effect on ADHD

It’s possible that some teens may use caffeine to help cope with undiagnosed and untreated ADHD symptoms. People with ADHD can experience low levels of dopamine, a “feel-good” hormone in the brain that’s linked to motivation. Caffeine enhances the effects of that hormone, which might lead those with ADHD to seek out more caffeine than is healthy.

Additionally, some researchers argue that caffeine might be able to improve certain adult ADHD symptoms, such as inattentiveness and memory impairment.

Despite this, there’s not enough conclusive evidence to say caffeine actually improves the performance of young people with ADHD. Doctor-prescribed medication is likely to be more effective than caffeine, and caffeine may even interact with medication in a way that’s unhelpful.

Caffeine’s effect on anxiety and bipolar disorder

If you’re socially anxious or prone to panic attacks, sipping on a coffee or energy drink is only going to make it much worse. As a stimulant, caffeine speeds up your heart rate and your breathing, which can worsen your anxiety. On top of that, if those cups of coffee ruin your sleep, you’ll likely feel even more anxious the next day.

A 2022 review of research confirmed that if you have an anxiety disorder, such as panic disorder, too much caffeine can even induce panic attacks.

Although not conclusive, there is also some evidence that caffeine may trigger manic states in people with bipolar disorder. This could be due to the fact that caffeine is a stimulant, it disrupts sleep, or simply interacts with medications.

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Caffeine tolerance and dependency

As is the case with many drugs, your tolerance can build if you routinely consume large amounts of caffeine. Your body gets used to it and begins producing more of the chemical associated with sleepiness. Then, you’ll need to consume even more caffeine to counter the increased adenosine.

Research also indicates that people who regularly overconsume caffeine can develop a dependency. If you try to cut back or avoid caffeine altogether, you may experience withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, a drop in mood, or difficulty concentrating. This can prompt you to reach for another coffee or soda just to feel “normal.”

The World Health Organization recognizes this as caffeine dependence. You might also hear it referred to as caffeine addiction, caffeine dependence syndrome, or caffeine use disorder.

Caffeine toxicity

When it comes to extremely high doses, it’s possible to experience caffeine toxicity. This could result from consuming too many energy drinks or high-dose sources of caffeine, such as pills or powders. The consequences can include seizures, vomiting, or irregular heartbeat. Although rare, there have also been fatal instances of caffeine overdose.

How to cut back on caffeine

If you love caffeine but are worried about your health, know that you don’t have to quit it altogether. Simply cutting back to a healthy level can help you avoid any negative side effects. Here are a few ways to break the habit:

Know how much you consume. Do you generally drink two cups of coffee in the morning, and then switch to energy drinks later in the day? Take a few days to keep track of how much you’re consuming. You might be surprised at how quickly it all adds up.

Cut back gradually. If your body is used to a lot of caffeine, you may experience withdrawal effects, such as headaches or mood issues, if you suddenly quit cold turkey. Instead, decrease your consumption little by little. Settle for one cup of coffee in the morning instead of two, for example.

Consider drinks with less caffeine. If you crave the taste of coffee in the afternoon, for example, try a decaf brew. If you’re a fan of sodas, switch to sparkling water. Whatever you choose to drink, it’s important to stay hydrated. Dehydration will only lead you to feel tired and wanting a caffeine boost.

Find new ways to feel more alert

Caffeine offers a quick way to feel more awake, but keep in mind that it’s not actually boosting your energy levels. Here are some energizing alternatives you can try out when you’re feeling tired:

Get active. The next time you feel tempted to reach for another cup of coffee, try taking a quick walk around your block or dancing in your room instead. Physical activity circulates oxygen throughout your body and releases mood-boosting hormones. If you’re typically a sedentary person, even low-intensity activities, such as walking, can be enough to reduce fatigue.

Improve your sleep hygiene. Most teens need somewhere between eight and ten hours of sleep at night. If you’re not getting enough shut eye, make sure your room is cool, dark, and quiet. Also establish a relaxing wind-down routine before bed, and try to stick to a consistent bedtime. You might find that relaxation practices, such as breathing exercises, also help. The better you rest at night, the less caffeine you’ll need the next morning.

Squeeze in a nap. A short nap during the day, ten to 30 minutes in length, may give you a little energy boost and increase your alertness. However, it’s important not to overdo it. A longer nap can leave you feeling groggy, so set an alarm to avoid slipping into deeper sleep.

Address any vitamin deficiency. If you’re deficient in vitamin B, taking a supplement may help improve your energy levels. However, there’s little evidence that a supplement will help if you’re already getting enough. B vitamins occur naturally in all sorts of foods, including leafy greens, whole grains, meat, and legumes.

Breathe deeply. Deep breathing is known to have a calming effect on your brain and body. It can also increase your energy levels and reduce fatigue, since you’re pulling in oxygen. Try HelpGuide’s Deep Breathing Meditation to see if it leaves you feeling invigorated and refreshed.

Tips for parents

If your teen seems to always be chugging coffee or sipping energy drinks, you may have concerns about their health. Perhaps you’ve even tried to ban them from drinking high-caffeine drinks, only for your efforts to backfire. That’s because banned substances can often be even more appealing to rebellious teenagers. However, there are more effective strategies you can try.

Share what you know. Explain to your teen the potential hazards of too much caffeine. You don’t need to embellish the side effects. Give them the facts on how tolerance and dependency can build. Also explain how too much caffeine can disrupt physical and mental health, impair brain development, and even affect a teen’s appearance.

Be a good role model. If you’re constantly drinking coffee, your teen may continue to follow your example. Instead, try to cut back on caffeine together. Make it a family effort.

Have caffeine alternatives on hand. Keep sparkling water in your fridge, for example, instead of sodas. Stock up on decaf coffee and herbal tea for the pantry.

Help your teen cope with any withdrawal symptoms. When cutting back, your teen could complain about headaches, brain fog, and fatigue, or they might seem more irritable than usual. Be patient with any changes in their mood and give them praise for making healthy decisions. Your words can go a long way in helping your child kick an unhealthy caffeine habit.

Last updated or reviewed on January 2, 2024