Student Survival 2009: What goes up ... 

A look at the downside of the legal substances students favor

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Caffeine is America's most-used drug, and it's still a go-to on campus. And no wonder: It's easily accessible, it's cheap, and rarely do you hear people talk about OD'ing on it.

Taken in one of its healthiest forms, in moderate amounts of drip-brewed coffee, caffeine actually may reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain kinds of cancer, and may even improve mood.

But here's the thing: Moderation hardly reigns on campus. Most every college student remembers downing a pot of coffee in mere hours while finishing a last-minute paper, especially during the all-out academic push that comes at the end of a semester. Many other students live in dorm rooms or apartments littered with cans of energy drinks.

When writing about legal drugs that fuel campus activity, we could start with caffeine and go on for pages: 8-HR Energy pills provide ongoing "refreshment." Tylenol PM works as a sleep aid. Online, plants like salvia or moonflowers are easily available and provide a relatively cheap high.

Instead, here we'll look at three of the most common. Students who rely on any of these to augment their academic and social progress should know of their detrimental long-term effects.

Energy drinks

Inside university coffee shops, bookstores and kiosks is a veritable rainbow of energy drinks, used to combat fatigue and the biological needs for sleep or food. They comprise a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States, and are marketed almost exclusively to the under-30 demographic.

These highly caffeinated, sugary beverages come in every shape, size and chemical makeup. An 8.3-ounce Red Bull contains 76 milligrams of caffeine — about as much as an eight-ounce cup of coffee. Others pack a much stronger punch: an 8.4-ounce can of Cocaine (formerly No Name), for instance, contains 280 milligrams of caffeine.

University of Connecticut professor and hydration expert Lawrence Armstrong, along with colleagues, has found that caffeine in excess of 575 milligrams does become a diuretic, and from that point on dehydrates the body rapidly. When, say, paired with alcohol, another diuretic, in popular drinks like Red Bull and vodka, the caffeine can become dangerous. As a stimulant, it counteracts the depressive effects of alcohol, veiling actual levels of intoxication — and, later, worsening hangovers.

Chloe Leach, 21, died last September on the dance floor of a U.K. nightclub after consuming a number of mixed beverages containing an energy drink and vodka. According to London's Telegraph, Leach apparently died of dehydration and a heart condition that may have been triggered or exacerbated by massive caffeine intake. With energy drinks already banned in Norway and Denmark, many European countries are now considering similar measures.

Some American legislators have sought to bar minors from purchasing energy drinks, citing the John Hopkins School of Medicine and other researchers that have tied them to restlessness, rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure and depression.

But if underage kids can easily access alcohol, they'll find a way to get their Rockstar or Monster, too. The allure is undeniable: The blend of herbal supplements, amino acids, sugars and caffeine activates certain reward and pleasure centers in the brain, temporarily improving reaction time and focus, according to researchers at England's Manchester Metropolitan University and University of Birmingham. And because these drinks supply energy in the form of sugar, a tired body absorbs it quickly.


Perhaps as common as the use of caffeine among college students is their use of something they often don't even know they're ingesting: monosodium glutamate (MSG), found in almost every kind of processed and fast food as a flavor enhancer.

Your typical dollar menu is a quick, frugal alternative to inventing a Cooking 101 class in the dorms. But because of the prevalence of MSG, it does far more harm than good to eat out. Even the salads at most fast-food restaurants contain MSG in the form of dressings, croutons or added chicken strips.

Everyone is at least a bit sensitive to MSG; after eating a large meal containing processed foods, people often feel lethargic or drowsy. At the other end of the spectrum are people like Megan Nix, a Denver Post contributor who has written about the blinding abdominal pains, migraines and illness that she can develop with even just a little MSG.

In between are people who feel the effects of "Chinese restaurant headache syndrome (CRHS)," writes Jean Armour, a licensed counselor at the Odyssey Training Center in Denver, in an e-mail. Symptoms of CRHS, more commonly called MSG sensitivity, include "headaches, nausea, weakness, thirst, flushing of the face, burning, abdominal pain, cramps, dizziness, vomiting, chills, depression, dry mouth, excessive sweating, fullness after eating very little, sleepiness, tingling sensations of the gums [and] blurred vision."

She adds that large doses have shown "decreased pituitary, thyroid and testis size, stunted growth, reproductive dysfunctions and kidney damage in experiments with rats." MSG can also worsen pre-existing conditions like autism, type 2 diabetes, schizophrenia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), asthma, seizures and cerebral palsy.

"It is a stimulant in the nervous system and causes excitation of neurons which can create many of the symptoms that ... can cause damage to brain cells," says Armour.

The Food and Drug Administration recognizes MSG as "generally safe" to use in food. And since it does not have to be listed on packaging as "monosodium glutamate" unless the added ingredient is actually 100 percent MSG, it goes by numerous pseudonyms — such as "yeast extract," "whey protein," "maltodextrin," and "natural flavoring(s)" — which makes it nearly impossible to avoid.

Prescription meds

The University of Michigan's annual Monitoring the Future study reported in 2007 that almost 4 percent of college students regularly use Ritalin, a drug meant to help treat ADHD, without a prescription. A 2008 study by the Academy of Medical Sciences in the U.K. reports that modafinil, used to treat narcolepsy, and donepezil, for Alzheimer's disease, are also among the most used by students for non-medicinal purposes.

Available for illegal purchase online or sale by those with a valid prescription, these drugs are known for their ability to focus the mind and lengthen the attention span, as well as improve wakefulness and memory recall. They are known as cognitive enhancers. But they are intended for people with degenerative and neurological conditions, and all meds have side-effects. For example, users of Ritalin, a stimulant, are at risk of anxiety or depression, and abusers may suffer anything from seizures to irregular heartbeat.

The U.K. study urged workplaces, schools and universities to combat the rising threat of misuse of prescription drugs with urine testing where necessary, citing that the use of cognitive enhancers in an academic setting is as unfair as the use of steroids by competitive athletes.

We're a long way from getting to the point where most students are peeing in cups, though. In the meantime, Stephanie Hanenberg, director of the Student Health Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, advises students to exercise regularly, eat well and sleep plenty instead of consuming caffeine, MSG or meds in large quantities.

"People tend to think clearer, make better decisions, and have the energy to complete numerous tasks when they are [healthy]."

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