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The Daily Tar Heel

Experts warn against high intake of caffeine

Photo: Caffeine Caution (Daniel Turner)

Jordan Heide reads the back of a box of Stay Awake caffeine pills. She overdosed on 800 mg of the pills, equivalent to four cups of coffee, the morning of March 18. “I was talking to my mom when I started convulsing and flung the phone across my room,” she said.

At first, Jordan Heide felt like she had the flu.

But when the junior’s body erupted into convulsions during the early hours of March 18, she realized it was much more serious.

“I was involuntarily flailing, screaming and I didn’t know what was going on,” Heide said. “It looked like an exorcism.”

No pre-existing condition caused Heide’s 15 minutes of convulsions. Instead, it was her excessive caffeine consumption that prompted the fit and landed her in the UNC Hospitals emergency room, she said.

As she lay in the hospital, doctors worked to dilute the 800 milligrams of caffeine she had consumed that evening.

Heide’s case, experts said, offers an extreme glimpse into a problem of caffeine abuse among college students, one that can bring about reactions ranging from nausea to abnormal heart rates.

“Students who drink caffeine stay awake longer. They stay up late, go out and party and have many drinks,” said Eric Wright, resident in the emergency department of UNC Hospitals. “The combination of this can cause seizures.”

The seizure threshold

Downing five 20-ounce Pepsi sodas per day, Heide, 21, said she is accustomed to a lifestyle of high caffeine consumption. On March 18, the night of St. Patrick’s Day, she said she felt particularly fatigued after a caffeine-free Four Loko, so she took a supplement.

She was sober by the time the convulsions hit.

After her 3 a.m. release from the emergency room, Heide said she had another 25-minute fit of convulsions at 7:30 a.m.

“It was never a fully blown seizure, but there were convulsions,” she said.

Her doctors understood her case after learning of her caffeine intake, she said.

Dr. Albert Hinn, a neurologist at UNC Hospitals, said excessive caffeine can cause seizures and convulsions in special cases, though seizures usually stem from brain disorders, genetic causes, medications and withdrawal.

“It is certainly possible that the seizure was provoked by the caffeine,” Hinn said.

As a nervous system stimulant, caffeine can lower the seizure threshold, he said.

But Wright said caffeine consumption and seizures are not immediately tied.

“There is no correlation between caffeine and seizures directly,” Wright said.

Rather, he said a lifestyle of caffeine abuse leads to sleep deprivation and alcohol abuse, which lower the seizure threshold.

‘Something was wrong’

After freshman David Hill consumed nearly 500 milligrams of caffeine from soda, coffee and energy drinks one night during exam week last fall, his vision became impaired.

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“I knew something was wrong when I measured my pulse and it was around 142 — almost double my resting heart rate of 76,” he said.

After sitting on the Undergraduate Library’s bathroom floor for half an hour, Hill said he began vomiting and developed a splitting headache.

“It was debilitating and terrifying. I didn’t know what was going on, or why my heart was racing and the room was spinning,” he said.

And Antonia Hartley, a clinical nutrition specialist, said Hill’s problems aren’t the only ones possible.

“Ulcers, stomach upsets, increased pulse and blood pressure, and headaches can all stem from excess caffeine,” she said.

She said students should know how much caffeine they are actually consuming ­— and that they can get energy naturally by drinking water and exercising.

“People really underestimate the power of making healthy choices.” she said.

And Heide said she’s been doing just that.

“My convulsions made me really careful about consuming caffeine. I’ve tried using things to naturally rejuvenate my energy sources to make me feel better and healthier,” Heide said.

Contact the University Editor at university@dailytarheel.com.

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