Caffeine’s Role in Modern Medicine: 5 Ways It Can Help Treat Patients

Most people relate caffeine to an energy boost. It’s the drug of choice when the day starts off too slow or the afternoon wears on too long.

But did you know that caffeine also has medical uses, that doctors and medical professionals use it to treat various medical conditions? It has long been studied and has proven it can be used effectively to treat or prevent medical issues.

Here’s a look at some of the ways caffeine is used in the medical field.  

How Does Caffeine Work?

Caffeine is a stimulant, which means “it speeds up the messages travelling between the brain and the body,” explains the Alcohol and Drug Foundation. More specifically, it stimulates the central nervous system (which controls the activities of the body) as well as the heart, muscles and centers that control blood pressure.

Certified nutritionist Nancy Desjardins explains that caffeine stimulates the adrenal glands, which produce adrenaline, the hormone and neurotransmitter that triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response. That’s where the boost of energy comes from — the quickened heartbeat, the increased blood flow to muscles and the ready-for-action feeling.  

It also increases your brain’s production of dopamine, known as “feel-good transmitters.” Dopamine is important for physical and mental health, writes the American Psychological Association. It is associated with motor control, emotion, cognition, motivation and desire.

MedlinePlus notes that while caffeine reaches its peak level in your blood within an hour of ingestion, you may feel the effects for four to six hours. That sustained boost is part of why it is so addictive — and potentially dangerous if over-consumed.

That stimulating effect is also what makes it so useful in treating certain medical issues.  

Caffeine Can Reduce Symptoms of Headache and Migraine

Caffeine has been shown to reduce the severity of headaches and migraines. Caffeine has “vasoconstrictive” properties, meaning it narrows blood vessels and restricts blood flow. This helps reduce head pain, explains the National Headache Foundation. “When caffeine is added to the combination of acetaminophen and aspirin, the pain relieving effect is increased by 40%,” the foundation writes.

Caffeine helps your body absorb medications more quickly, allowing you to feel headache relief sooner. For that reason, the American Migraine Foundation reports, caffeine is the key active ingredient in headache medicines such as Excedrin, Anacin, Midol, Darvon Compound, Fioricet and Migranal.

It Can Help Infants with Neonatal Apnea

Behind antibiotics, caffeine is the most commonly used drug in a neonatal intensive care unit, says Dr. Abhay Lodha, staff neonatologist with Alberta Health Services.

One way it is used is to treat apnea in premature babies. Healthwise, a Canadian nonprofit, notes that “a premature baby's nervous system may not be mature enough to send all the right signals at the right time.” The resulting condition is apnea, a pause in breathing of 20 seconds or more, during which time oxygen levels in the blood drop and the heart rate slows.

Pediatric pulmonologist Dr. Lawrence Rhein says caffeine effectively reminds infants’ brains to breathe. “Caffeine treatment allows babies to receive the benefits of higher oxygen saturation while reducing the toxic effects of exposure,” he explains. The most commonly used caffeine medication for infant apnea is Cafcit, or caffeine citrate.

It Can Help People with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

People with ADHD most commonly exhibit symptoms of varying levels of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a little more than 9 percent of children in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD. In an article reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD, WebMD notes that about 4 or 5 percent of adults suffer from it.

And the most common treatments for ADHD are stimulants because these types of drugs — and the dopamine production they spur — can improve focus, increase attention span and help control impulsive behavior, notes Medical News Today in an article reviewed by Dr. Timothy Legg, a family psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner. The article cites various studies that advocate for using caffeine to moderate the effects of ADHD. Caffeine works by mimicking the effects of stronger ADHD stimulants like amphetamines.

But caffeine isn’t a blanket cure for ADHD. Too much caffeine, especially in children, has been shown to have damaging side effects. It can also be harmful to people who are already taking a prescription-strength stimulant. Medical professional must consider caffeine as a treatment option that is specific to each individual patient.

It Can Protect Against Heart Disease and Stroke

Caffeine’s effect on heart disease and stroke has been studied for years, and the most recent studies continue to show that caffeine can protect against these conditions.

According to a study by University of Colorado  researcher Laura Stevens and colleagues, which was presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions in 2017, for every additional cup of coffee consumed per week, people have a reduced risk of developing heart failure and stroke compared with non-coffee drinkers.

The catch is that this study, and others to date, are observations of health and coffee consumption over time to establish a link between the two, cautions health and science writer Amanda MacMillan. They do not establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship, but they do suggest that coffee is protective against heart disease and stroke.

It Can Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

Doctors and researchers also have long studied the relationship between caffeine and the development of Alzheimer's disease. A number of those studies have concluded that caffeine can reduce the risk for developing the condition.

  • The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation’s AJ Carman and colleagues show that while caffeine is known to enhance short-term memory and cognition, long-term use may also protect against cognitive decline or dementia.
  • A study led by Dr. Abhishek Mohan at Old Dominion University in Virginia shows that coffee consumption can reduce the levels of beta amyloid by up to 50 percent. Beta amyloid is a destructive protein commonly found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.
  • A study published in Molecular Medicine Reports concludes that daily caffeine intake may reverse memory impairment.
  • Research by David Blum and colleagues, published in Biochemical Society Transactions, suggests that caffeine may be a disease modifier in Alzheimer’s disease.

And the list of studies goes on. “Coffee consumption does seem to have some correlation to a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease,” says Dr. Donald Weaver, a co-director of the Krembil Brain Institute, which is studying the chemical compound alterations of caffeine.

Ira Driscoll, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of a study on the relationship between caffeine consumption and Alzheimer’s in women over 65, expresses optimism at the study’s findings. “The mounting evidence of caffeine consumption as a potentially protective factor against cognitive impairment is exciting given that caffeine is also an easily modifiable dietary factor.”

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