My teen really wants to try coffee. What’s the harm?

The question: My 14-year-old wants to drink coffee. Is it too soon?

The answer: While the occasional cup of coffee at this age is probably safe, I’m not so sure that I would be encouraging the habit.

Caffeine is the most widely consumed stimulant drug in the world. It is estimated that 90 per cent of North American adults consume caffeine daily (full disclosure: I am one of them!). The health research on caffeine is a mixed bag of potential benefits and troubling side effects.

Like other stimulant drugs, caffeine has the potential to temporarily increase alertness and boost concentration. Some studies even suggest that regular caffeine ingestion may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes, although much more research is required.

It is the caffeine side effects that make me uncomfortable whenever I see young teens drinking coffee and other highly caffeinated beverages. The most common adverse effects include jitteriness, nausea, diarrhea, palpitations and insomnia. Insufficient sleep is particularly troubling at this age as sleep disorders have been linked to obesity, behaviour problems, and poor academic performance.

According to Health Canada, excessive caffeine ingestion may cause reproductive problems including decreased fertility and fetal growth restriction. Teens have slower rates of caffeine metabolism, putting them at even higher risk for unwanted side effects.

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