What are methylxanthines?

Methylxanthines can be found in caffeinated beverages such as tea.

Methylxanthines are molecular compounds derived naturally or synthetically from xanthine and are commonly found in medications for certain respiratory conditions. They are both stimulants that can increase heart rate and blood flow and relaxants that can open blood vessels and loosen muscle tissues. Caffeine naturally contains them, and these molecules are one of the main reasons why people often feel their heart racing after consuming too many caffeinated foods or drinks. Scientists and pharmaceutical manufacturers often use the molecule in drugs designed to fight chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and in many cases it can provide almost immediate relief from lung blockages. The compounds can also be found in many types of asthma and bronchial inhalers. In these situations, the molecule helps open the airways to make breathing easier.

Molecular Basics

Methylxanthines can be derived from chocolate.

Drugs classified as methylxanthines are actually derived from xanthine, which is a purine – a natural, protein-rich part of most cells – found in the human body. Xanthines are converted through a process known as methylation, which involves adding methyl groups to form alkaloids. This can happen by itself in nature, as is the case with coffee beans and tea leaves, among others. In these cases, the leaves and fruits, which contain caffeine, synthesize xanthines as part of their natural maturation. All of this happens at the cellular level, usually when plants are getting ready to mature. The timing of this process is one of the reasons that very young coffees and teas often don’t have as much caffeine as blends made with older plants.

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Methylxanthines can be found in coffee.

The stimulant can also be created artificially in laboratories, which is often the case when pharmacologists want to use it in drugs. Rather than following the steps of isolating caffeine molecules and then identifying and separating natural methylxanthines, scientists often choose to create the compounds synthetically from xanthines, which are often very abundant.

Treatment of lung diseases

Some medications used to treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) contain methylxanthines.

One of the most common pharmaceutical uses for this compound is as an additive to medications for people suffering from COPD. COPD is a lung disease that essentially causes a person’s lungs to lose access to oxygen, usually because the heart cannot pump enough blood to it. Smoking is one of the main causes, but certain genetic conditions and other environmental exposures can also be to blame. Methylxanthines can help by stimulating blood flow and opening blockages. Their effect is usually not permanent and not usually seen as a cure, but they can help right away and can be a good short-term solution.

Patients with GERD may experience side effects from methylxanthines.

These types of compounds can also be very helpful for people with chronic obstructive lung or airway disease, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. The molecules act on the constricted bronchi and bronchioles to improve airflow, reduce inflammation, and relax the airways, while increasing blood flow through cardiac stimulation.

For the same reasons, they are also commonly found in many asthma medications. In these settings, they tend to be administered by inhalers or in pill form. They affect the throat, lungs, heart, and other important parts of the bronchial and pulmonary systems, and the accelerated lung response and airway relaxation caused by this medication is why frequent coffee drinkers sometimes get sick. complain of shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and even mild arrhythmia.

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As a general stimulant

Frequent coffee drinkers sometimes complain of shortness of breath.

Both methylated and unmethylated synthetic xanthines can be used as mild stimulants, more generally, too, meaning out of treatment for any particular condition. In addition to caffeine, other compounds in this group include theophylline, aminophylline, paraxanthine, and theobromine. The molecular structures of each of them vary slightly, but they all have the same core and the same basic characteristics.

Their effect is why people suffering respiratory discomfort, colds, or allergies often self-treat by drinking tea, breathing the steam from tea, or inhaling the aroma of steeping tea leaves, all of which can help to relax airways and ease breathing. While not an effective long-term treatment, these benefits can provide temporary relief from mild discomfort. The compounds are also approved by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), while caffeine in most cases is not. Therefore, Olympic contestants may use these substances to temporarily increase energy and adrenaline response.

Common Risks

Small doses and temporary uses of this compound do not usually present any serious risks. The molecule is a diuretic, though, which means that it can be dehydrating, and people who are taking it or consuming it should usually be sure to drink plenty of water. Excessive use over long periods of time can cause stress on the heart.

Patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, may also suffer negative side effects from methylxanthines and foods containing them, particularly high-caffeine drinks like coffee and tea or high theobromine foods like chocolate. As the compounds relax the esophagus, they can contribute to gastric reflux reactions. While small quantities may not cause a reaction, larger intakes can lead to nausea and heartburn.

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