Caffeine Overdose

Coffee on an empty stomach causes author Jeff Lund to research the details behind a caffeine overdose. We've heard about people "going HAM" on energy drinks and it causing cardiac arrest but what about coffee? More specifically, we look to answer the question... how much coffee is too much?
Caffeine Overdose

by Jeff Lund, 1/22/18

I was half an hour down the trail, when the caffeine started to take hold.

The pre-breakfast stroll on a docile path north of town had become an Olympic speed walk through the Alaskan wilderness and the buzz in my head had me planning the rest of the weekend, the summer, and writing a book about the evolution of rain gear, all at the same time. Coffee on an empty stomach.

It got me thinking, how much caffeine is too much? I knew even if I finished off the thermos I’d just top off the buzz and maybe upset my stomach since nothing else was churning in there, my heart would thump harder against the inside of the ribs meant to protect it, but would it turn off? Like, could I die? Is it possible to accidentally weaponized coffee and use it against yourself? I’ve heard of people going HAM on energy drinks in short periods of time and it causing cardiac arrest, but what about coffee?

When I got home, and diluted my buzz with eggs and venison breakfast sausage, I found a USA Today article from May of 2017 that answered my question. The article reported the death of a teenager who ingesting a fatal amount of caffeine after consuming energy drinks and a coffee drink in a short period of time – two hours. But just because you mix energy drinks with coffee, doesn’t mean you’re going to cause an arrhythmia. Scary outliers are just that, examples of worst-case scenarios, often terribly tragic.

In the article, an emergency physician from New York City who said it would take 50-100 cups of coffee to do me in. I’ve been loaded up on caffeine before, and even tried the Jolt Cola pancreas punch in the early 90s, but was too chicken to really push the limits. My stomach couldn’t handle the sugar and carbonation in addition to the caffeine. I felt the normal side effects of too much sugar and caffeine: accelerated heartbeat, upset stomach, headache, etc. However, caffeine in a pure, powdered form (1/16th of a teaspoon) could be lethal in small amounts according the article.

That made me think of caffeine pills which take the entire fun out of drinking coffee and could, of course, be taken in excess and lead to an overdose. I then thought of college students who maybe didn’t like the taste of coffee and instead popped pills to aid in studying. That took me to a January 2017 article in Cosmopolitan that reported a few students in England, who volunteered for a medical trial testing the effects of caffeine on exercise, were hospitalized after a miscalculation in dosage. They erroneously received, and downed, 100 times the intended amount. According to the article, 18 grams (the average cup of coffee contains 80-100 milligrams) is the fatal caffeine limit and the students took 30 grams, or the equivalent of 300 cups of coffee.

While this drastically contrasts with the estimate by the physician in the USA Today article, I’m not sure it matters. If that doctor said on the low end, 50 cups, could do the trick but the equivalent of 300, taken in pill form, didn’t for those students, big deal.

Time seems to be just as important and even the possibility of preexisting conditions. Who is going to intentionally stay committed to downing that much volume? If a cup is eight ounces, we’re talking 400 ounces, over three gallons, more than four, 96-ounce pots, of coffee and that’s the low end. My personal best was 32 ounces over 12 hours to help me get through New Mexico.

So, can too much caffeine kill me? Yes. I knew that. Can coffee kill me? Well, do I have the patience to sit and drink between 50 and 300 cups of coffee in a short period of time? Absolutely not. A black bear would kill me well before that happens.

Which gets me thinking…

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Jeff Lund is a writer and English teacher in Ketchikan, Alaska. Follow him on Instagram @alaskalund