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There are some days when I wished I drank coffee.
A couple of weeks back I was faced with one of those days. I had been kept awake for a good part of the night by the sound of the police responding to my neighbour's car being broken into (!), and the following day I was faced with extreme tiredness, a large pile of work and a rapidly approaching deadline. Writing a thesis is something that demands a very high level of concentration for sustained periods of time, and on that particular morning I was struggling to even remember which document I was working on. It was clear that my usual post-breakfast Diet Coke was not going to cut it that day and that I need something a bit more powerful.
My usual response on days like this was to reach for the (sugar free) Red Bull, but on this particular morning I somehow managed to recall my Other Half recommending Pro Plus to me. A few evenings prior to that day, he had come home from work absolutely buzzing, despite having had (by his own admission) four hours sleep the previous night. Having seen how well it had worked for him, I resolved to try it for myself, and called in at the local Somerfield to pick up a packet; Pro Plus is widely available over the counter at any shop selling pharmaceutical products. The box I bought cost £1.65 and contained 24 tablets, which meant that if it was effective it would work out cheaper in the long run than buying cans of Red Bull (which retail at around £1 a can). I have also seen larger packs of Pro Plus at Boots, which retail at £4.25 for 96 tablets, but I didn't want such a huge amount just to try it.
Pro Plus is not a complex product; it is simply caffeine in a tablet form (50mg per tablet), and promises the "rapid relief of temporary tiredness". Caffeine, as I'm sure most of you are aware, is a stimulant. More specifically, it is a naturally occurring alkaloid that occurs in coffee, tea, cola nuts and cacao beans that causes a number of effects: it stimulates the central nervous system, heart and respiratory systems, and increases blood flow around the body. The result of this is that the consumer feels less tired and more mentally alert. As a daily Diet Coke drinker, I had always considered myself to be something of a caffeine addict…although a little research reveals now that a can contains only around 45mg, and I often drink less than this a day. To put that in context, a cold relief tablet or a chocolate bar contains around 30mg of caffeine, a can of Red Bull has 80mg, and the Food and Drug Administration in the US considers 300mg a day to be a moderate consumption level. In short, I am hardly the hardened caffeine addict that I had though I was!
The instructions for taking Pro Plus are straightforward: "take one to two tablets, with water if preferred, as required during the day, but do not exceed two tablets in any one hour or 12 tablets in 24 hours". The tablets are quite small, measuring less than 1cm in diameter, which I suppose makes them about half the size of a Smartie. This is a good thing, as it makes swallowing them easy. I took my first two tablets at 9.30am, and then waited to see what the results would be. These two tablets, I should remind you, contain 100mg of caffeine (about the same as an espresso), and are therefore providing two to three times the amount of caffeine that I would normally ingest in any one day. At first I felt nothing, but gradually I was aware of becoming more alert and could focus on my work a bit better. On hour passes and I'm certainly improved, but not by as much as I was expecting, so I take another two tablets. I have now taken 200mg of caffeine in the form of Pro Plus, but even together with a can of Diet Coke, I am still well below what the FDA considers to be "moderate" consumption levels.
Four tablets in, and I am certainly feeling the effects! On the plus side, my mental alertness has improved and I am concentrating well on my work; this effect lasts for the rest of the day and I have no trouble in working later than usual to make sure I meet my deadline. In fact, even after I finish for the evening, I am feeling far less tired than I would expect after doing this much work. This is great. However, there are also some less pleasant effects that I am experiencing, which also last for the rest of the day. While I normally have a good appetite for my lunch, today I feel slightly queasy…not fully nauseous, but not fully right either, the sort of feeling you get in your stomach when you are under a lot of stress. I also feel restless, twitchy and my hands are shaky, which is quite physically uncomfortable. Worse still, when I went to bed that night (around 12 hours after I had taken that last two tablets) I found that the caffeine gave me insomnia and it took over three hours for me to finally get to sleep and I woke repeatedly in the night. So of course, I was very tired again the next day. This is less good.
Regular caffeine consumption reduces sensitivity to caffeine. As a low level consumer, what I was experiencing here was a very sensitive reaction to caffeine; although the amount of caffeine was in itself comparatively small, because my body wasn't used to it, it produced very strong stimulating effects. For someone who was regular coffee drinker, four tablets would probably produce a much less marked response. However, it does worry me that a product that can produce such a strong (and unpleasant) effect in consumers comes with no more warnings than "not suitable for children under 12". It also bothers me that it is widely promoted in universities as a "study aid" and that I have seen it advertised in motorway service stops to keep drivers awake on long journeys. I would not want to give Pro Plus to anyone as young as 12, and I wouldn't have thought I would be in a very safe position to drive if I was feeling jumpy and twitchy from taking their product. Using Pro Plus on a regular basis to help studying hardly seems a healthy approach to work, either. I would like to see the manufacturers (Bayer Healthcare) include clearer guidelines on taking Pro Plus, especially that people who consume low levels of caffeine on a day to day basis need far smaller doses than those who regularly down espressos.
I am unlikely to take Pro Plus again unless it was real emergency - and then I would take no more than two tablets per day, in the morning to prevent the insomnia.
So would I recommend Pro Plus?
Yes to people who use it infrequently for a specific purpose (e.g. an important meeting after a bad night's sleep). But be careful not to overdose on it or take it too late in the day, as it causes insomnia and you will end up feeling even worse tomorrow.
No to anyone of school age, pregnant or breastfeeding women, anyone with hypertension (high blood pressure), or people who have sleep problems to start with. They are also unsuitable for vegetarians.
After experiencing the effects of caffeine, perhaps I am glad not to be a coffee drinker after all!