A few years ago, it dawned on Zach Thomas that coffee didn't have enough caffeine. At the time, he was pulling all-nighters as a student at the United States Military Academy at West Point. By the time he became an instructor at the U.S. Army Ranger School in Fort Benning, Ga., he lived by a common saying at his school: "Sleep is a crutch." "I used to just drink a pot of coffee, but then you have to go to the bathroom 100 times during the day. If you could just get more caffeine in one cup, then that would be the best of both worlds," he says. In 2005 Thomas, now 30, founded Ranger Coffee, with a "hypercaffeinated" blend that contains double the caffeine of regular coffee, or about 300 milligrams per 12-ounce serving—the equivalent of six Diet Cokes. The small, Rockmart, Ga.-based company sells 1,700 bags of coffee a year, nearly half of them to troops stationed in Iraq.
These days you don't have to be a war hero to be a caffeine addict. Everywhere you look, people are wired on caffeine or touting its benefits—or both. Tabloids run images of celebrities sipping Red Bull or toting Starbucks venti lattes; Dunkin' Donuts ads feature a coffee-swilling Rachael Ray, who moves so fast she leaves tread marks on the floor. There's no shortage of ways to get your caffeine fix. Sales of energy drinks like Red Bull and Full Throttle have grown tenfold since 2001, and new ones enter the market weekly. Products that already have caffeine are adding more—in the past few months Diet Pepsi, Jolt and Mountain Dew have all rolled out extra-caffeinated versions. Novelty items, like caffeinated lip balm, caffeinated sunflower seeds, caffeinated beer and even caffeinated soap ("Tired of waking up and having to wait for your morning java to brew?") are also popping up in retail stores and nightclubs. In a spoof on this caffeine arms race, the site Energyfiend.com launched a "death by caffeine calculator" that shows a 180-pound adult would have to down 44 tall cups of Starbucks coffee before checking in to the big java house in the sky.
Why do we need—or want—so much energy? Conventional wisdom says it's because we're sleeping less and working more. But government figures show that adults have averaged eight hours of sleep per night since the 1960s. Working hours, at least for men, have also remained constant: men with children have averaged about 43 hours of paid work per week for the past half century. Of course, that doesn't mean we don't feel more stressed. University of Maryland sociologist Suzanne Bianchi says working mothers' entry into the labor force means there's less downtime for families as a whole, with errands, housework and outings packed into a tight two-day weekend. As for the young and unattached, they may be getting plenty of sleep, but at irregular hours. They have more options than ever for 24/7 entertainment, from TiVo to the Internet to videogames. In fact, many of the novelty caffeine products are aimed at computer gamers who stage weekend-long "LAN parties" where no one sleeps.
But for the general public, the trend is more about getting a legal high. "Caffeine is the world's most popular mood-altering drug," says David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. And companies have been banking on its addictive properties to bring repeat business. Caffeine can lift your mood, improve concentration, boost physical stamina and, as an active ingredient in Excedrin, help cure headaches. More than 50 percent of caffeine drinkers experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop.
By most accounts, though, the stimulant is fairly safe. "There's nothing inherently wrong with being dependent on caffeine," says Roland Griffiths, a neuroscientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. As long as you don't overdose. For those accustomed to caffeine, a moderate intake is 200 to 300 milligrams per day—the equivalent of two to three cups of brewed coffee, one Starbucks tall coffee or 3.5 Red Bulls. Exceed 500 to 600 milligrams, and anxiety, nausea and heart palpitations can set in. Griffiths does worry about teenagers, who are drinking more caffeinated beverages: "I'm concerned that impressionable adolescents exposed to marketing messages that promote caffeine as a performance enhancer will later turn to stronger drugs, like steroids or Ritalin or cocaine." More worrisome still is the glamorization of the 24/7 caffeine high. Even Rachael Ray occasionally needs her rest.