University of Alabama researchers found pain tolerance in 62 men and women aged 19 to 77 increased with their level of caffeine consumption. Their study was published online in the journal Psychopharmacology.
The volunteer participants recorded dietary caffeine consumption during the week — whether the source was coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks and/or chocolate — and then completed experimental pain sensitivity testing involving both heat and pressure. After controlling for gender, race, tobacco, alcohol use and other variables, researchers found pain tolerance increased as more caffeine was consumed.
Other research shows a proper diet — including a plant-based one — can help limit the severity of pain, Burel R. Goodin, lead study author and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama, noted in an article published by the school. "People just don’t realize that their diet, including caffeine consumption, can be used as a pain intervention," he said.
The news that caffeine consumption might help individuals withstand pain could benefit manufacturers of a host of products containing the world's most widely consumed psychoactive drug. The similar pain-limiting association with plant-based diets also might give manufacturers another label claim to tout, although more studies might be necessary given the small numbers of participants — 62 in the caffeine study and only 14 in the plant-based one done at Arkansas State University.
Coffee already has carved out a big slice of the beverage space and shows no sign of slowing down. According to a survey from the National Coffee Association cited by Reuters, 64% of American adults drink a cup of coffee daily, which is a 2% jump from 2017 and the highest level since 2012. Associating the coffee habit with reducing sensitivity to pain is likely boost its popularity even more.
Statista research projects coffee sales will hit nearly $13 billion this year and increase at a compound annual growth rate of 3.1% from 2018 through 2021. The U.S. is the leading global consumer of coffee, with Americans drinking 400 million cups per day.
It's no wonder that as growth-starved food companies look for growth, that have increased their presence in the coffee space. M&A activity has dramatically picked up when it comes to coffee. Data from CB Insights shows coffee startups are on pace to raise more than $1 billion by the end of 2018, and investors have already poured $600 million into these newcomers this year alone — four times the funding in 2017. Average deal size has also shot up to a whopping $14 million in 2018 from $2.7 million last year.
Besides coffee, weekly consumption of caffeine from tea, soda, energy drinks and chocolate also were tracked in study participants. The average dose was 170 milligrams per day — approximately the amount contained in two cups of coffee — although 15% of those taking part ingested more than 400 mg daily.
It's not clear whether consuming more than that means even more pain tolerance, although other studies found that drinking as many as eight cups of coffee daily doesn't increase mortality risk, and two studies last year linked drinking three cups daily with a lower risk of heart disease, liver disease, stroke and a longer life expectancy. Perhaps additional research on the other caffeine-containing products could help fill in the picture.
The link between plant-based diets and lowered sensitivity to pain is intriguing and bound to be of interest to those considering or already practicing a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. But the Arkansas State University study had a very small participant pool, so more extensive research focusing on a much larger group would be helpful before plant-based food and beverage makers could make a believable and scientifically solid labeling claim.