Brain fuel or gruel: Caffeine and Saint Martin’s students

Olivia Alvord, Staff Writer

Taryn Zard, Staff Writer 

Saint Martin’s students stay caffeinated with a variety of drinks. Photo retrieved from

Balancing college classes, jobs, extracurricular activities, friendships, and family obligations is hard. It can be even more tiring in the virtual setting where we are stuck looking at screens for many hours of the day. College students have always fueled their studies with a variety of energy enhancing drinks, foods, and practices. Since moving to virtual learning, many students are looking to those practices now more than ever. 

To find out what caffeinated drinks Saint Martin’s University students prefer as their brain fuel, we interviewed students from a variety of classes, majors, and backgrounds. We gave them a list of four beverages: coffee, tea, energy drinks, and soda, and then asked them to explain which they prefer, why, and how often they enjoy it. Overwhelmingly, the most common answers were tea and coffee.

While no one explicitly chose black tea over green, or vice versa, most interviewed students preferred tea because of its caffeine benefits without the common side effects that people experience when drinking coffee, soda, or energy drinks. 

Julia Lucas, a senior, said, “I prefer tea because it keeps me awake without making me feel over caffeinated and jittery.” Celine Winston, a freshman, also mentioned that her go-to study drink would be tea. “I drink earl grey specifically and it’s a bit bitter. If I drink a sweet drink then I’ll get jittery and won’t focus as well,” shared Winston. Laura Rooney, a junior, on the other hand, preferred iced tea from Dutch Bros mainly because “it has caffeine to help keep me awake and alert while doing homework but it also keeps me hydrated.”

Both Jonathan Ogata and Jessie Balkwell preferred coffee over the other options because it was a happy medium– stronger than tea but healthier than energy drinks. Katelynn Gulley, a junior, preferred coffee because of its familiarity and nostalgia, despite recognizing that “from a biological standpoint, the way we process tea is much healthier than the way we process caffeine in coffee. It is also less likely to lead to an increase in fat and insomnia.” 

Nikki Gandaoli also chose coffee as her preferred source of caffeine, but did mention that her go-to coffee order of iced chai or a vanilla mocha with lots of cream and sugar sometimes doesn’t boost her energy levels as much as she would like it to. She said, “I think because I prefer a lot of cream and sugar it just kind of negates the caffeine.”

Some students favored soda over the other options. Krislyn Davis, a senior, preferred Dr. Pepper over other sodas. “I used to drink a Dr. Pepper almost daily but now I drink it like three times a week. I have a health condition that makes me use up sugar really fast, so a can of soda a day is actually helpful in keeping my energy up. It’s also less likely to fuel migraines than other sodas,” shared Davis. 

Although he did not specify what kind, freshman Nick Reifler’s go-to drink was also soda. He said, “It usually makes me incredibly drowsy at first, but I don’t have trouble sleeping. However, it does make me feel less tired in the long run.” 

Some students also mentioned that they have different caffeine preferences depending on the time of day. Madelaine O’Neal said, “I normally drink coffee in the morning and then an energy drink in the afternoon. I feel slightly more awake after morning coffee but I usually don’t sleep as well when I have an energy drink later in the day.” 

While most of the interviewed students fell into the coffee or tea category, a few students explicitly chose energy drinks as their preferred brain fuel at any hour of the day. Whether it’s Red Bull from the Monk’s Bean, Matcha Green Tea from Starbucks, or just plain old black coffee, students can be seen indulging in caffeine on a daily basis around campus. 

Are you wondering how your preferred brain fuel affects you? Let’s take a look at the science behind caffeine and how it affects your brain, sleep, and daily life.

Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that is naturally found in leaves, seeds, and fruits; most commonly, in coffee, cocoa beans, kola nuts, and tea leaves, and is synthetically produced and added to energy drink, sodas, and other beverages. Caffeine works to improve a persons’ mood and focus, while lowering their level of fatigue. Effects on brain activity, such as focus and cognition, can occur from low to moderate levels of consumption at 20-200 mg. 

Caffeine can have several health benefits, as well as side effects. Photo retrieved from

Caffeine is able to have such powerful and strong effects by primarily blocking neuroreceptors that play a role in a person’s sleep. By blocking receptors from binding to melatonin and serotonin, the sleepy brain chemicals, a person’s brain can increase its release of chemicals like dopamine and adrenaline, which work to increase a person’s level of energy, and alertness, all the while inhibiting the level of fatigue. 

If the caffeine dose is high enough, up to 50 percent of the receptors are blocked. Typically, caffeine takes anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes to take effect, and lasts an average of three to five hours. Some people can have caffeine sensitivities, where they are more likely to develop harmful side effects that anyone can get from consuming caffeine in excess. Continued high doses of caffeine can lead to nausea, anxiety, trembling, jitteriness or restlessness, disorientation, agitation, or upset stomach. Other symptoms that are common with high doses of caffeine, especially in coffee, are insomnia, rapid heartbeat, headaches, a foul mood, and increased blood pressure. 

There are also many health benefits to these beverages. Red Bull has a significant number of B vitamins, whereas coffee has more antioxidants that help reduce risk for several diseases. Coffee beans have two acids that convert potential cancer-causing compounds into less toxic versions. Drinking a cup of black coffee has been shown to help keep blood sugar levels from rising after eating and might help lower the risk of developing type II diabetes. Tea also contains a lot of antioxidants that can help combat various diseases, and a lot of spices used in teas have beneficial nutrients. 

Researchers suggest healthy adults can safely consume up to 400 mg of caffeine daily. 400 mg is roughly the equivalent of four 8 oz cups of coffee or five 8.4 oz cans of Red Bull. A cup of tea varies on caffeine content; black, green, and oolong are caffeinated teas, but even “decaffeinated” teas still maintain a small amount. Most herbal teas do not contain caffeine, though. An 8 oz cup of black tea contains 48 mg, green has 29 mg, and oolong contains 38 mg. That means, on average, a person could drink ten and a half, 8 oz cups of tea before reaching the maximum caffeine dose. 

Red Bull has a lot of sugar though, a typical can contains 27 g of sugar, which is 75 percent of the recommended daily maximum of added sugar for men by the American Heart Association, and 108 percent of the daily dose of added sugar for women. Although there are some benefits to drinking caffeinated beverages, like a temporary boost in mental clarity and energy levels, excessive amounts can lead to stress, anxiousness, poor quality of sleep, or feelings of unease and restlessness. Additionally, although small amounts of coffee have been proven to be a good liver cleanser, too much can cause stomach spasms and cramps due to the high acidity content. 

Regular caffeine consumption actually increases the adenosine receptor production, because they are used to being blocked. Meaning the overall benefits of caffeine are less noticeable because they decrease over time when a tolerance gets built up, and suddenly that magical pick-me up drink is not so helpful. In regular caffeine consumers, the beneficial alertness gained from caffeine consumption is linked more to the reversal of the withdrawal effects than from an improved performance. 

Dependence can be formed by drinking as little as 100 mg per day for three days; that is the equivalent to drinking an 8 oz cup of Joe for three days straight. Withdrawal symptoms can appear anywhere from 12-16 hours after not consuming caffeine, and peaks at 24 to 48 hours from the moment of stopping caffeine consumption. Some ways to avoid the crash associated with caffeine withdrawal is to really focus on getting enough sleep, don’t drink caffeine less than five to six hours before going to bed, limit the amount of caffeine consumed, and if a person plans to stop drinking caffeine so much, taper off, do not just stop altogether. Although the benefits are strong, especially in tea which has lower caffeine contents, any substance with caffeine can lead to gastrointestinal issues, heartburn, dizziness, abdominal pain, and nausea. If somebody is to consume caffeinated beverages it is important to pay attention to the amount of not only caffeine, but sugar and types of sweeteners being utilized as well.

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