Is coffee helping or hurting college students?

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Madi McLaughlin, a freshman at Southern Methodist University, started drinking coffee when she was 13 years old.

On her way to school, her parents would drive her to their local Starbucks so that McLaughlin could jump start her day with a skinny mocha. Although at the time this routine seemed like a harmless way to sip a dessert-like drink while driving to school, now, four years later, McLaughlin will, “probably not” ever stop drinking coffee.

“It’s gotten to the point where my body needs coffee,” McLaughlin said. “So when I don’t drink it, I’ll get a headache and withdrawal symptoms.”

The life of a typical college student is nothing short of chaotic. Between school, friends, and extracurriculars, it can often feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to check everything off of one’s to-do list, while also getting a substantial amount of sleep. Due to a decrease in sleep and an increase in activities, many college students, like McLaughlin, drink caffeinated beverages in order to make it through the day. E-Imports, a company that assists coffee start-ups in their beginnings stages, found that over 50 percent of Americans aged 18 and older drink coffee every day.

On a regular day, McLaughlin will drink between one and two cups of coffee in order to focus.

“I think it’s good because we need the energy to study,” Mclaughlin said. “But it can also make us dependent on things that we shouldn’t really rely on.”

According to Professor Laura Robinson, a nutrition professor at SMU, although coffee can be beneficial to college students, over time consumers start to build up a tolerance for the caffeine.

“So, then it’s like ‘I need to have more coffee,” Robinson said. “I need about two or three cups to wake up, whenever it used to take half a cup to wake up.’”

This increase in tolerance can lead to an addiction, which then makes coffee a daily necessity.

“Once you train your brain, and you train your heart rate, you don’t feel normal without it, that’s when it becomes more difficult to remove,” Robinson said. “It’s very similar to alcohol, and it’s like when you don’t have it… you can’t think, you can’t focus.”

Because many children grow up seeing their parents drink coffee, Robinson has found that coffee habits are beginning at younger ages in the United States.

“I’ve even seen kids in junior high and elementary drinking coffee now,” Robinson said. “And I think at that point, it’s more of a learnt behavior. You see your parents drink coffee.”

In addition to copying adults, many young people have started drinking coffee due to the increase in Starbucks’ locations and the amount of sugar in these drinks. In 2017, there were 13,930 Starbucks locations throughout the United States, according to Statista.

Instead of drinking a plain cup of coffee maybe with a spoonful of sugar, Starbucks has made coffee drinks like desserts by filling them with whipped cream, caramel, and chocolate sauce, which has now carried over into local coffee shops as well.

“It used to be that college and high school kids would shun away coffee,” Robinson said. “But now, as long as they can make it a chemistry project: add sugar and cream and your mochas or white chocolates to it, then I think it’s even going down to the elementary level.”

Robinson also said that coffee drinkers can encounter problems with coffee when it is consumed close to bedtime. Students may find themselves lying awake at night, unable to fall asleep, due to enhanced entropy caused by caffeine.

“If you’ve had a cup of coffee that kept you awake until 2 in the morning, and then you have a class at 8 or 9 in the morning, your brain has not had enough time,” Robinson said. “It takes seven-and-a-half to nine hours for your brain to really take in, process, and dump old information, and to reset itself to bring in new information for the next day.”

RyanCole Weldon-Carroll, an engineering major at SMU who usually does not drink coffee, experienced this over-stimulation caused by coffee first hand. Weldon-Carroll ordered a Starbucks drink that contained more caffeine than his body could handle, which resulted in hardly any sleep.

“I got like two hours of sleep that night,” Weldon-Carroll said.

This was an unusual experience for Weldon-Carroll, because he typically does not drink coffee.

“I think it probably has more of a negative impact than people realize,” Weldon-Carroll said. “I heard someone talking the other day and they said, ‘honestly, I drink more coffee than I do water,’ which I don’t think is a good thing.”

Even though Weldon-Carroll does not drink coffee, he usually gets around four hours of sleep per night, which is half the recommended amount of sleep. Instead of relying on caffeinated beverages, Weldon-Carroll has found what he believes to be a healthier alternative in SMU’s Fondren Library.

“If it gets really late at night, sometimes I’ll exercise.” Weldon-Carroll said. “Last time I did it, I ran sprints up and down this room, I lifted ottoman military presses, I held an ottoman and did step ups, and I did table push-ups. I also have a gripper that I use that keeps me awake because it just keeps me doing something.”

Weldon-Carroll’s method is not unheard of in the world of nutrition. Robinson also said that exercise is a good way to stay awake and alert throughout the day.

“To maintain and increase focus and increase awareness, exercise has actually been produced as more of a stimulant than coffee has,” Robinson said.

Unlike Weldon-Carroll, however, most college students have decided to rely on the boost they get from drinking coffee in order to get their work done.

“I think it runs in our veins here,” Elisabeth Gonzalez, a pre-med student at SMU, said regarding college students and coffee, “without it we would die.”

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