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Part 3: Does Caffeine Addiction Lead to Illicit Drug Use?

An assortment of energy drinks.
Energy drinks can prime the brains of young people for addiction.

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Caffeine is a stimulant—and it’s the most widely used stimulant in the world.

While it’s true that caffeine doesn’t destroy lives like hard drugs, it’s also true that it has the power to lead to powerful addictions, at least according to one recent study.

Conducted in 2015 by neuroscientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the study found that long-term caffeine consumption during adolescence could enhance the sensitivity of the adult brain to cocaine.

So what does that mean, practically speaking?

This is how Psychology Today answers that question: “By any definition, caffeine is clearly a gateway drug.”

The Rise of Energy Drinks

Although you will find the occasional teen who drinks coffee, the bigger concern is the rise of energy drinks, which make good old-fashioned soda seem like a healthy choice.

Compared to a can of Coke, which has 34 milligrams of caffeine, an energy drink can contain anywhere from 100 to 300 milligrams of caffeine.

Energy drinks are one of the fastest-growing segments of the beverage industry, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp.—and they’re being targeted largely at teenagers and young adults. There is even a product called Cocaine Energy Drink, which contains a whopping 280 milligrams of caffeine per can.

But while energy drinks are a large part of the beverage industry, the American Academy of Pediatrics has a strong position against them, stating these drinks have “no place in the diets of children and adolescents.”

Why? Because like the University of Colorado at Boulder study suggests, long-term caffeine intake starting at a young age can influence the likelihood of a person’s substance use in adulthood.

In Part 4 of our series on caffeine, we’ll examine alternatives to drinking coffee or energy drinks. Curious how caffeine affects the body and brain? Take a look at Part 2. In Part 1, we examined the caffeine content in various drinks.

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Part 4: Healthy Alternatives to Coffee and Caffeine

Part 2: Caffeine Effects on the Mind and Body

Part 1: Is Caffeine a Drug?

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