BEIRUT: A steady stream of students flocked undeterred to the multitudes of cafes along Bliss Street despite the torrential rains for their daily fix of caffeine.
Naim Chehab, who has been a barista for seven years at Latte-Art, a small coffee shop across from the American University of Beirut, seems to be on a first-name basis with all his customers.
“You get used to the people,” he said in between coffee orders.
Chehab said a large number of his customers are students, not a surprise given the location, and they visit more frequently during exams. One of his regular patrons consumes up to eight cups of Turkish coffee a day, while another will drop by four times a day for a cup of Nescafe.
Generally, most of the students tend to order cafe lattes or Nescafe, the ubiquitous instant coffee.
But perhaps Lebanon’s university students are drinking a bit too much coffee – new research shows that nearly half may have developed a dependence on caffeine.
“Some can’t even go two days without consuming the caffeine,” said Marie Tannous, assistant professor at the faculty of natural and applied sciences of Notre Dame University-Louaize.
The study, which looks at the caffeine consumption habits of college undergraduates and graduates, reported that nearly 45 percent of students are dependent on caffeine, telling researchers that they cannot go more than two to three days without it.
Two-thirds also report withdrawal symptoms and after-effects of caffeine including insomnia, increased aggression and arrhythmia.
The researchers looked at a random sample of 215 students in three universities in north Lebanon who filled a questionnaire on their caffeine consumption habits.
Essentially all the students who responded to the survey said they consumed caffeine, with the most commonly consumed drink – by almost a fifth of the student population – being Nescafe, followed by hot chocolate and soft drinks. The least common type of caffeine consumed was espresso.
Two-thirds of university students increase their caffeine consumption during exams. They also drank more of it in the latter years of university – for instance, 40 percent of students over 24 years of age consume caffeine more than three times a day.
“University students rely increasingly more on caffeine as they become older,” the researchers said in the paper, which was published in the Public Health Research journal.
The students said they primarily drank the caffeine to stay alert, due to academic stress or to get through long shifts – essentially while pulling all-nighters to study for tests.
While moderate caffeine usage has reported health benefits ranging from better cognition to protecting against type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s and liver disease, excessive caffeine consumption can cause insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, quicker heartbeats and muscle tremors.
The Mayo Clinic says 400 milligrams of caffeine a day “appears to be safe for most healthy adults” – the equivalent of four cups of brewed coffee.
But one of the main problems with excessive caffeine consumption in Lebanon is that the country’s population appears to be genetically predisposed to hypertension. Out of all the students in the survey, 58 percent of them had a history of hypertension in the family, increasing the likelihood that they develop the condition later in life.
While some individuals can develop a tolerance for caffeine, others can have higher blood pressure due to regular consumption of caffeinated drinks.
“Their families and parents have hypertension and they’ll eventually inherit some of these genetic abnormalities, and if they keep taking caffeinated beverages it’s going to catch up to them,” Tannous said. “If they have that genetic predisposition and they eat healthy and don’t drink a lot of caffeine they would not develop hypertension eventually.”
She said she plans to expand the research to include universities in Beirut, but believes the results apply to them as well. She also wants to study the health effects of the additives people usually include with coffee or Nescafe, including creamers and added sugar.