Don’t get too dependent on your daily fix, warns Fiona Sutherland.

COFFEE or tea, anyone? They might be two of our favourite drinks, but how many of us know exactly what caffeine is up to in the body?

For dancers, caffeine is of particular relevance because of the fine line between its usefulness and enjoyable qualities and its less useful or harmful qualities. Understanding how your own body responds to caffeine is a critical part of being able to enjoy caffeinated food and drinks, without having unpleasant side effects.

Caffeine is found in the beans, leaves and fruits of certain plants. The most common way it is used is as an extraction from the beans of the coffee plant and the leaves of the tea bush. In humans, caffeine acts as a stimulant to the brain and central nervous system and, as such, is classified as a drug. Though legal and not strictly addictive, it is habit-forming! In small doses, it can make you feel refreshed and focused. In larger doses, you are likely to feel anxious and have difficulty sleeping.

Caffeine works on the body in similar ways to the hormone adrenalin. When we are frightened or stressed, the adrenal glands squirt adrenalin directly into the bloodstream. The results are dramatic and instantaneous, with an increase in breathing and heart rate, accompanied by a short burst of physical energy.

Caffeine is absorbed rapidly into the blood stream and reaches a maximum concentration after about an hour. The amount of caffeine that produces a noticeable effect varies widely from person to person, mostly depending on sex, body size and level of tolerance to caffeine. The stimulating effect of caffeine is short-term only, meaning that your actual level of fatigue remains the same but is being temporarily “hidden” by the caffeine.

In some dancers, this can mean that fatigue may not be addressed through nutrition, adequate rest or establishing good sleep habits. Using caffeine becomes the way some people feel like they “get through the day” rather than looking at other areas they could modify to improve energy levels. . . 

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Fiona Sutherland is an accredited dietitian and nutritionist, and consultant to the Australian Ballet School.

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