What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain 

Who does not know about caffeine today? It has been around for over 400 years now and has actually become an essential part of everyday life, especially in the western world. Caffeine is present in more than 60 species of plants. If you cannot start your day without a cup of coffee, you are certainly not alone. And if you look for a cup of coffee to sharpen your senses during a particularly drowsy afternoon, that is certainly not a surprise. Interestingly, about 90% of Americans consume some form of caffeine on a daily basis.

It seems that caffeine is everywhere today. Energy drinks, tea, chewing gum, sweets, chocolate, and even weight-loss tablets contain it.

While the love for coffee and caffeine is getting stronger by the day, there are people who always talk about the side effects of including it in your life. They talk about how it affects you mentally and physically and why it is better to stay away from it. But, the question is, “Do they really know what caffeine actually does to your brain?” There are many misconceptions associated with the use of it, and here are some facts and many of which might surprise you and even make you change your view about caffeine.

Regular Tea is Not Free of Caffeine

Many people say that you should avoid coffee, and instead stick to tea to protect yourself from the harmful effects of caffeine. Well, the truth is that tea leaves also contain caffeine; in fact, they contain more than coffee beans. Your regular cup of tea may not feel that stimulating though because it is usually diluted when prepared. Your average 100g cup of tea contains about 20mg of caffeine, whereas the same serving of black filter coffee offers about 40mg. It means that you can also get a jolt from your cup of tea if you use more leaves, and do not steep the tea for long enough.

Caffeine may Help Athletes Perform Better

What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain 

There was a time when caffeine was included in the list of restricted substances for athletes, but that is no longer the case. When used properly, it can actually help you nail that personal best.

Some athletes are still under the impression that drinking coffee or ingesting caffeine is not a good idea, because it causes dehydration and initiates a diuretic effect by increasing the number of bathroom visits.

The truth is that it is not dehydrating or diuretic during exercise. These effects are only evident when you take caffeine while resting.

Reaction to Caffeine Varies from Person to Person

You may be wondering why your friend experienced nothing after consuming 200mg of caffeine, but you experienced its stimulating effects when you consumed no more than 100mg. Well, the answer may be in your genes. Scientists have found that a specific gene is likely to have an influence on how your body processes caffeine.

  • Italian villagers who carry a specific variant of the PDSS2 gene consume about one less cup of coffee per day compared with non-carriers, according to researchers at Edinburgh University.

The gene seems to slow the breakdown of caffeine in the body. It means that if you have this gene, you are likely to get a more enduring ‘hit’ from every cup of coffee. It also means that you are likely to drink far less than people who do not have that gene.

Caffeine Intake is not always equal to Sleeping Difficulties

Most people think that caffeine can cause insomnia, and it is true that it may lead to sleeping difficulties, but you can prevent this just by knowing “how” and “when” to use it. It implies that you are likely to experience some sleep problems if you drink coffee 2-5 hours before going to bed. You are less likely to experience that effect when you have a cup of coffee in the morning.

Furthermore, you cannot say that everyone drinking caffeine will eventually develop insomnia, because many people who drink 10 cups a day do not experience jitteriness, because they have a genetic predisposition that allows them to drink and process caffeine with ease. Interestingly, some studies have shown that people with ADHD or ADD may benefit from it, as it helps them calm down. And some studies have found that if you do not know there was caffeine in your drink, you may never experience any sleep problem at all. Caffeine works the way you ‘expect’ it to work. So, do not automatically think that it equals sleep problems, especially when you drink in moderation.

Caffeine and Napping may Enhance Performance

There is evidence that napping helps sharpen your senses when you are sleep deprived, and some studies have found that caffeine can also help make you feel alert. Interestingly, you can augment these benefits by combining caffeine and napping. Just drink a cup of coffee before a nap to enjoy an extra zap of energy when you wake up. Sleep deprivation can lead to a “sleep debt” – by the way, you can build up a sleep debt even when you do not realize it. Taking a nap is one of many ways to repay that sleep debt, but you can combine it with caffeine to get better results.

  • In a 1997 study, 12 sleep-deprived people drank the equivalent of one large cup of brewed coffee and five minutes later had the chance to nap for 15 minutes. They then did some driving tests in a simulator to check their alertness. Although drinking a coffee (without a nap) helped their driving performance, combining caffeine with a nap (a coffee nap) improved it even further.

The thing is that your body takes some time to process it. It stays in your stomach for some time and then moves to the small intestine, where the body absorbs it. The whole process may take up to 45 minutes. It means that you will feel alert after 45 minutes of taking caffeine. It implies that you can take a nap soon after drinking it, because your body has not yet experienced the caffeine hit. That nap will improve your energy, and when you wake up the effect of caffeine will take effect. This will have an additive effect on performance.

Feeling Alert Does Not Always Mean Feeling Sharp

What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain, coffee beansThere is evidence that it improves alertness, but other studies also show that this not affect working memory or reduce error rate to a great extent. This is also a testament to the fact that it can work in a weird way, and may affect some people more than others. Studies show that the overall effect is context dependent but it does lead to an improvement in reaction time but at the cost of accuracy.

  • Caffeine ingestion, at 6mg/kg bodyweight, was able to slightly increase Reaction Time, Decision Time, and Movement Time when ingested in either fatigued or fully rested athletes. Source

In case of memory, studies have found highly mixed results. Some evidence suggests that caffeine increases perceptual/spatial memory, but it reduces working memory.

  • Caffeine was able to increase memory formation when administered in a dose of 200mg in extroverts, but not introverts. Suspected to be due to dopaminergic transmission, which differs between the two social classifications. Source

Overall, caffeine may work when you are doing a relatively routine task – it helps you keep going even when you are feeling fatigued. However, it fails to show significant improvement in learning, reaction times, memory, and many other psychological areas.

Too Much of a Good Thing is Bad… but How Much is Too Much?

There are benefits of caffeine, but excessive consumption can certainly cause some side effects. Studies show that you can safely consume up to 400mg a day. It means you can safely have four cups of brewed coffee, but consuming upwards of 500mg can lead to problems.

  • “For adults it would be uncommon to experience effects of caffeine intoxication at less than 250 milligrams of caffeine (or 2.5 cups of coffee. It would typically be more than 12 ounces, but much more common to have the negative effects with greater than 500 milligrams of caffeine.”

It is actually not a very good idea to consume too much of it, because studies have shown that overconsumption is less likely to show any increase in performance. That is especially true if you have just started consuming it.

Trick Your Brain with Caffeine to Kill Pill

Have you ever wondered why office work and coffee go hand in hand? New studies have found the answer:

  • The new study published in the journal BMC Research Notes found that drinking coffee reduces the development of pain during computer work.  Study participants who had consumed coffee (1/2-1 cup) on average 1 hour and 18 minutes before performing a simulated computer office-work task found to provoke pain in the neck, shoulders, forearms and wrists, were found to have “attenuated pain development compared with the subjects who had abstained from coffee intake.” [Source]

Some studies have also found an oil-soluble component called cafestrol that give caffeinated coffee opiate-like properties. Along with having potent analgesic properties, caffeine can also help improve the pain killing power of pain relievers such as ibuprofen and aspirin. It is because of this reason that caffeine is now a common ingredient in OTC painkillers – it is now also used in narcotic painkillers such as Percodan.

It is worth mentioning that caffeine uses several different mechanisms to relieve pain. Studies have proved it already:

  • Leading caffeine researchers Jan Snel and Monicque M. Lorist state that the studies of caffeine alone and in combination with other pain killers show that “different pain states can, to different degrees, be mediated by different mechanisms that may be caffeine-sensitive.”[Source]

However, there is little information about all those different mechanisms, and that is what makes it a lot more mysterious.

Sharpen Senses with Caffeine

If you are looking for the best way to suppress sedation and increase the state of wakefulness, caffeine may certainly help. Did you know a cup of coffee can help you see better in the dark? In fact, the boost can be up to 38%. Some studies have also shown that it can help you discriminate between colours better. Another interesting fact is that it can help you ignore distracting stimuli in your environment.

Not Everyone Needs to Worry about Withdrawal Effects

What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain, coffeeYour love for caffeine can take you too far and this may make you forget that it is a psychoactive drug. It means that it changes mood, brain function, and behaviour by altering the activity of neurotransmitters. Therefore, you need to stay prepared to deal with some withdrawal symptoms.

However, there is something you need to know – not everyone is going to experience withdrawal affects, and if you do, those effects will not last forever. The severity of withdrawal effects depends on many factors including your age, general health, gender, and weight. Whether or not you drink or smoke and the condition of your liver and your genes also have a role to play (SourceSource).
In case, you are interested in breaking the habit but always think about withdrawal symptoms, here are a few tips to help make the transition easy.

  • Do not try to quit suddenly. Try to cut back on your intake first to avoid dealing with any withdrawal symptoms.
  • Avoid having your first shot immediately after waking up in the morning. Take some time. Breathe. Snap at your family if you want. Have a caffeine fix only when you feel shaking with rage.
  • Pay attention to how your body feels between coffees. Becoming more mindful about the effects and your addiction will help you find energy to break this habit for good.
  • Keep a small notebook with you and record all negative effects you experience due to your excessive intake. This will tell you that you really need to stop drinking or at least cut back on your intake.
  • Read about popular people, including poets, writers, musicians, painters, and philosophers who have managed to break the habit. Tell yourself if it is really a good idea to keep yourself artificially productive with excessive intake.
  • Spend time with people who may also be trying to avoid coffee withdrawal. They can be very supportive and even share a tip or two to help you get better results.

Caffeine is Not Addictive… at least not for Everyone!

There are some studies suggesting that consumption can lead to addiction. In fact, a “Johns Hopkins review of over 170 years of caffeine withdrawal research concluded that you can become addicted to caffeine from as little as one daily cup of coffee (Source)”. However, new studies have found that it is not addictive, but it can be habit-forming. Have you ever heard about jonesing coffee addicts hijacking motorists or robbing stores to arrange money to buy coffee?

The thing is that caffeine can cause dependence, but it does not fall into the same category as alcohol or opiates. Unlike drugs and alcohol, it does not cause crime, disease, automobile accidents, financial ruin, or a breakdown in social interactions, which is why it would be wrong to suggest that it is addictive. And the fact that many people do not experience any withdrawal symptoms when they give up is another reason why it would be wrong to call caffeine addictive.

The fact of the matter is that caffeine can ‘hit’ your brain in many different ways. What you experience depends heavily on your age, specific genes you may have, your overall health, and the amount you consume. You can take some to see how it works for you, and as it is not addictive, you can certainly eliminate it from your diet when you want. And if you are already a caffeine junkie, you may want to cut back on how much you consume. You can even quit drinking coffee, and if you are worried about withdrawal, you already know how to proceed, don’t you?

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