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Understanding caffeine

Alongside brushing our teeth, what’s the daily ritual that most of us in the west commit to without fail, day in, day out? A morning dose of caffeine. We explore this much-relied-upon daily drug to find out how good it really is for us…

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Photo: Nathan Dumlao

Caffeine is a naturally occurring, yet addictive, chemical stimulant that significantly interferes with our normal neurological behaviour (more on that below) and alters our physical state. However, it evades all regulation and is so pervasive in our culture that few of us think twice about doing anything else first thing in the morning than making a cup of coffee. It’s a substance that’s in coffee, in chocolate, in soft drinks, in supplements and, of course, in energy drinks. It’s hard to walk through an airport, a mall, or along the street and not witness the multi-billion-dollar caffeine industry at work, dedicated to the proliferation of this ‘pick-me-up’ substance.

At its base level, caffeine (1,3,7-trimethylxanthine) is a natural alkaloid found in coffee beans, tea leaves, cocoa beans, cola nuts and other plants. It is probably the most frequently ingested pharmacologically active (a drug) and addictive substance in the world. Some of us have a predisposition to be more sensitive to caffeine and, although it is in many common beverages and foods (think coffee, tea, fizzy drinks, supplements, and chocolate), the levels of caffeine in each of these vary in quantity.

Within 30 minutes from intake, most individuals will start to feel the impact of caffeine on the physical body, as well as neurologically. Depending on how quickly your body’s able to break it down, you could feel the effects of caffeine for 3 to 8 hours.

Caffeine, in its chemical compound form, has the effect of mimicking an important and natural compound called adenosine, which we start to produce a few hours after waking. Adenosine regulates brain function, and as this compound builds up, it binds to special receptors and we start to feel more tired. In turn, our cognitive and physical ability starts to lower. As professor of neuroscience Dr. Matthew Walker explains, “[Caffeine] is a small molecule, it easily hurdles the blood-brain barrier, where it blocks the uptake of… adenosine. Adenosine tells the brain we are drowsy, but caffeine does not let the brain get the message. It is this simple trick, elbowing adenosine off the barstool and sitting in its place, that makes caffeine a favourite drug.”

Photo: Vladislav Muslakov

Alongside this action, we may start to feel the benefits of increased physical and cognitive ability. We will have a release of adrenaline, serotonin, dopamine and glutamate, which combined create a cocktail that can make us feel pretty invincible.

That’s until our brain catches up. And we feel the crash.

Caffeine may successfully block the adenosine from latching on to these receptors during a certain time period (3 to 5 hours) but it doesn’t make the adenosine disappear. It hangs around, waiting, to do its regulatory job and let your brain know that it’s time for a rest. However, fend adenosine off for a while with a few cups of coffee, and you are headed for a significant crash as the caffeine dwindles, and the now accumulated adenosine can finally set in.

Additionally, there are the long term impacts of the day in, day out, silencing of the regulatory function of adenosine. The brain is clever and adaptable, and in reaction to caffeine blocking these receptors, the brain makes even more of them so that adenosine is still able to bind its target. This means that over time, the chemistry of your brain changes, so that you’ll need to drink more and more coffee to maintain the same effect.

This highlights the first, and most profound, side-effect of caffeine intake. Caffeine masks what is really happening to your body. If you are finding yourself chronically tired, there is likely something wrong, and these signs need to be listened to. However, we use caffeine to cover up where we are at, without really blinking an eye, and are thus distancing ourselves from what may really be going on.

Before we take a quick look into the pros and cons of coffee drinking, it’s well worth remembering the murky nature of research and studies in the food and health sector. Coffee finds its way into the headlines frequently, and the news is often contradictory to last week’s big news. As professor Marion Nestle, an NYU nutrition professor who tracked the correlation between financial support and positive outcomes of food and beverage industry research, affirms; “Is it really true that food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favour? Yes, it is, and the practice continues.”

In one year alone, Professor Nestle’s research uncovered 168 such studies, and of those, 156 showed biased results that favoured the sponsor’s interests. Financial backing for research into these fields often leads back to the industry leaders of the substance itself. Studies and headlines should be read critically, and it’s important to look into who funded the study.

There are a few possible positive impacts on health that are linked to coffee-drinking which are widely publicised, such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease and uterine and liver cancer. However, a recurrent theme in this research, is that science can not pinpoint why exactly coffee has a positive impact on these ailments. Similarly, with research that daily consumption could decrease the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, it’s hard to identify exactly why, but the compounds in coffee seem to protect cells from the accumulation of toxic proteins that play a role in the onset of diabetes.

There is also research that presents that long-term caffeine intake may improve cognitive performance, including verbal memory, and may also protect against cognitive decline. It is possible that suppressing the potency of adenosine leads to an increase of neural activity, which may eventually cause various positive effects of caffeine on brain function, including alleviated alertness, arousal and attention.

From an athletic performance perspective, caffeine is favoured for its ability to improve blood flow and stay more mentally acute, supporting athletes in endurance activities.

As for the negative impacts, there are a fair few to be mindful of, especially if you have a pre-existing sensitivity in one of these areas.

Those eating a more plant-based diet, or are at risk of low B12 or iron levels, may want to think twice before reaching for a caffeinated pick-me-up. Caffeine has been proven to significantly interfere with the absorption of iron – a mineral that is necessary for the production of red blood cells. If you have low iron levels but don’t want to forego your daily caffeine kick, just be sure that you don’t use your cold brew to swallow down an iron pill; caffeine can inhibit iron absorption by up to 80%.

The significant, and perhaps the most commonly experienced downside to caffeine, is its impact on our sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of six hours, which means that at this point your body has only eliminated about half the substance, and so having an afternoon coffee is doing very little to support a healthy and easy sleep cycle. And this can become a tireless cycle, of awaking tired from poor sleep (from the impact of caffeinated beverages late in the day) and then reaching for cups of coffee throughout the day, to keep fatigue at bay. Sleep is the cornerstone of good health, and disrupted sleep has clear correlation to cancer, alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression and suicide.

There is also research linking the impact of caffeine to an increase in certain symptoms or challenges for individuals with PCOS, endometriosis and reproductive issues. Caffeine has been linked to the development of cysts in breast tissue, infertility and miscarriage. And when it comes to the latter, research by Germaine Buck Louis Ph.D has found that it’s not just the female’s intake of caffeine that counts, the research also indicates that the male partner matters too; male preconception consumption of caffeinated beverages was just as strongly associated with pregnancy loss as females.”

Photo: Nathan Dumlao

Not all caffeine is alike

It’s important to note that not all coffee, and not all caffeinated drinks, are created equal. The caffeine content of a cup of tea varies to that of an energy drink, and when it comes to coffee, the brewing method, growing conditions and variety of bean will all influence its caffeine content. For example, the more you agitate the tea bag, swirling or dunking it in your cup, may mean more caffeine in the cup. Here are a few of our favourite caffeinated beverages and their correlating caffeine content:

  • Brewed coffee contains the most caffeine with between 95-165mg per 8o. serving
  • A single espresso contains between 47 and 64mg of caffeine
  • An 8oz serving of brewed decaf coffee will contain between 2 and 5mg caffeine.
  • An 8oz serving of brewed green tea contains between 25 and 29mg of caffeine
  • An 8oz matcha latte contains approximately 28-35mg of caffeine

Caffeine, and our prolific intake of it, is an indication for our fast-paced world and its values – where being ‘busy’ and over-stretching ourselves are common and subconscious (or conscious) status symbols of our time. In contrast, sleep is stigmatised and attributed to being lazy, with the lack of it often being a badge to wear with pride. The research around caffeine is plentiful, varied and ever-changing, and there are both pros and cons to take account of. However, with that aside, what we do know is that caffeine allows us to overwrite our bodies natural functions, temporarily numbing our neurological signals.

By placing distance between what our body may really need and what we, or our lifestyles, want from it, we give caffeine the power to disengage from our natural body intelligence, to silence it. And maybe, with that in mind, we would benefit in shifting our caffeine-related behaviour off of autopilot, to ensure that we are making informed and conscious choices.

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