In our math department’s faculty lounge, one can often find a liquid-y substance some people refer to as “coffee.” This designation seems questionable to me, so instead I have opted for a Starbucks prepaid card. I don’t drink a lot of coffee, but I do have one cup in the morning.
According to Starbucks, a tall (12 oz) cup of Pike Place Roast contains about 260mg of caffeine. Personally, I prefer the Blonde Roast, but I haven’t found its nutritional data. One of my students inquired at Starbucks and the barista told him that the Blonde Roast contains more caffeine per ounce than the others; apparently, since it is less roasted, less caffeine is lost during the roasting process, leading to more in the final product. I wonder if this is true.
How long does caffeine hang out in your body?
Wikipedia reports that the biological half-life of caffeine in an adult human is around 5 hours. The half-life of a substance is the amount of time required for half of the material present to metabolize. In other words, if the half-life of caffeine in your system is 5 hours and you consume 260mg of caffeine at 8am, then five hours later (at 1pm) we would expect 130mg of caffeine to remain in your system — provided you haven’t consumed any more caffeine since your morning coffee.
The half-life of caffeine in your system is related to lots of factors: Your age, your weight, what medications you’re taking, how well your liver is functioning, and whether or not you’re pregnant.
Maternal Caffeine Consumption & Half-Life
It turns out that if you’re pregnant, the half-life of caffeine increases quite a bit. In other words, it takes your body longer to metabolize caffeine. Today’s quick search yielded these few medical studies that agree about this:
- The effect of pregnancy on the pharmacokinetics of caffeine. Knutti R, Rothweiler H, Schlatter C. (1982) Arch Toxicol Suppl.
- Reproduction and caffeine consumption–a literature review. Golding J. (1995) Early Hum Dev.
- Maternal caffeine intake during pregnancy and risk of fetal growth restriction: a large prospective observational study. (2010) BMJ.
According to Golding’s study, by the 35th week of pregnancy, the half-life of caffeine increase to a high of 18 hours. (For comparison, the Knutti et al. study cites a half-life of 10.5 hours during the last four weeks of pregnancy.) Since I am not yet in my 35th week of pregnancy, let’s assume the half-life of caffeine in my body is 12 hours. How is this different from my (assumed) non-pregnant state, when its half-life is only 5 hours?
Suppose I consume a Pike Roast Tall coffee at 8am that contains 260mg of caffeine. What time will it be when only 50mg of caffeine remain in my system? When not pregnant, it would take my body about 11.9 hours, so by 8pm less than 50mg of caffeine would be found in my system. Meanwhile, a half-life of 12 hours means it would take my body 28.5 hours — that’s over a full day!
We discussed this calculation as part of my PreCalculus course a few semesters ago. One student, who was usually rather quiet and didn’t ask many questions, raised his hand. He asked, “So, Dr. Owens, what you’re telling me is that to save money on Starbucks coffee, I should get pregnant?” Laughter ensued, and I assured my students that getting pregnant as a cost-savings measure was really not an optimal strategy.
As far as the risk to maternal and neonate health, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists concluded “Moderate caffeine consumption (less than 200 mg per day) does not appear to be a major contributing factor in miscarriage or preterm birth” in 2010  .
My Conclusion: Okay, it’s probably best if I limit my caffeine intake while pregnant. But I also have to think about my overall happiness and my enjoyment of life — as far as caffeine goes, today’s science seems to imply that my occasional Starbucks habit is a net positive (happiness minus risk), even when taking into account its expense (increased work productivity minus $2 per cup).