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Caffeine Could be the Source of Sleep, Mood and Physical Problems in Kids

August 18, 2014



Valerie Silva, a smiling young woman in a kitchenValerie Silva. Listen to a Total Health Radio podcast featuring Valerie »

OAKLAND, Calif. — As though the hormonal changes weren’t enough, there may be something else meddling with your teen’s mood and sleep cycle.

Many kids, high-school age and younger, are juggling nearly as many responsibilities as adults — and now, they’re caffeinating like adults, too. As many families are finding out, the use of coffee, soda, or energy drinks can lead to painful consequences.

Valerie’s Story

During high school, while her classmates spent their evenings hanging out with friends and procrastinating on homework, then-teenager Valerie Silva maintained a busy schedule by anyone’s standards.

Volleyball practice started at 5 a.m., followed by a day of high school classes. After school, Valerie went to her part-time job as a lifeguard until 7 or 8 p.m. When she came home, Valerie sat down to dinner with her parents before finishing homework and heading to bed.

To everyone around her, Valerie was managing her busy schedule with ease. In reality, she was relying heavily on caffeine to keep her awake, drinking at least two to three sodas each night before waking up with a morning coffee at 4:30 a.m.

A few months into the school year, Valerie started having screaming fits in the middle of the night.

“She was waking up in horrid pain every night, rolling around on the bed and holding her head,” recalled Desiree Silva, Valerie’s mom. “We didn’t know what to do. We just felt helpless.”

Piercing headaches during the night kept Valerie — and her family — awake. Suddenly, the A-student started turning in homework late. She had to skip volleyball practice. The pain was so bad that, for the first time, Valerie had to call in sick to her job.

After trying several medications and a series of tests that revealed nothing about the cause of the headaches, Valerie’s pediatrician, Michael Nelson, MD, with Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, referred her to a pediatric neurologist, who recommended some basic changes to her diet — namely, cutting out caffeine entirely.

Valerie took the doctor’s recommendations to heart, and stopped drinking any form of caffeine. A few days after making the changes, on a sunny Sunday morning, Valerie walked downstairs with a smile on her face. “I woke up with no pain!” she exclaimed to her mom as she gave her a giant hug.

It had been her first full night of sleep in weeks.

A can of red soda being openedThe Facts About Caffeine

The explosion in popularity of coffee-house culture and the increasing availability of energy drinks over the past decade has led to an upsurge in the number of kids consuming caffeinated beverages.

Dr. Nelson sees the effects of caffeine on children firsthand.

“I’ve definitely seen an increase in my own practice of caffeine consumption in kids,” he said. “It can be hard to control, and kids and parents may not be aware of the sometimes subtle but real health effects that caffeine can have.”

Caffeine can have emotional and physical side effects in children, including:

  • Sleep problems. One of the most common side effects of caffeine use in kids is trouble falling asleep, or the inability to stay asleep.
  • Changes in mood. Caffeine can give kids a boost of energy in the beginning, but it can also make them irritable or angry.
  • Trouble concentrating. Though some teens may be using caffeine to stay alert and maintain a busy schedule, caffeine can make it difficult to focus or concentrate on homework.
  • Dependency. Lastly, regular caffeine use can cause dependency, leading to headaches or other physical side effects when a child tries to quit using caffeine.

Dr. Nelson acknowledges that talking to a child about their caffeine use — especially when a parent uses caffeine regularly — can be hard. But the health issues associated with kids and caffeine are real.

Parents can use these tips to talk with their child about caffeine use:

  • Explain it from a health perspective. Explain to your child that caffeine can cause sleep, mood and other health issues in kids.
  • Find the root cause of caffeine consumption. Talk with your child to determine whether they are using caffeine to manage a busy schedule. If this is the case, help find ways to lighten their workload or obligations.
  • Caffeine in kids vs. adults. Explain to your child that caffeine affects adults differently than children. Studies have shown that caffeine, when used in moderation, is actually healthy in adults.

Get Your Energy Boost the Natural Way

Though caffeine is an easy go-to for a quick energy boost, Kaiser Permanente dietician Ricia Taylor, RD, recommends healthier ways to keep your energy up as the day goes on.

Teen girl wearing shorts walking husie dog in park with green grass and clear, blue sky“I love the idea of going for a brisk walk if you’ve been sitting for a while,” she said. “It gets your circulation going — and gets oxygen to the brain.”

Here are Ricia’s suggestions to increase your energy, without using caffeine:

  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration is a quick way to zap your energy.
  • Eating smaller, more frequent meals can boost and sustain energy.
  • Eat a protein-based snack combined with a high-fiber starch or fruit. String cheese with grapes, whole wheat crackers with peanut butter, and Greek yogurt are all great options.
  • Wash or rinse your face with cold water before starting homework.
  • Regular sleep at night will help moderate energy levels throughout the day.

If you have concerns about your child’s caffeine use, be sure to discuss it with their pediatrician.

Watch Valerie tell her story at kp.org/carestories.

About Kaiser Permanente
Kaiser Permanente is committed to helping shape the future of health care. We are recognized as one of America’s leading health care providers and not-for-profit health plans. Founded in 1945, our mission is to provide high-quality, affordable health care services and to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve. We currently serve approximately 9.5 million members in eight states and the District of Columbia. Care for members and patients is focused on their total health and guided by their personal physicians, specialists and team of caregivers. Our expert and caring medical teams are empowered and supported by industry-leading technology advances and tools for health promotion, disease prevention, state-of-the-art care delivery and world-class chronic disease management. Kaiser Permanente is dedicated to care innovations, clinical research, health education and the support of community health. For more information, go to: kp.org/share.