“I don’t know how I could function without my coffee.”
“Please don’t explain the benefits of exercise until I’ve had my cup of coffee.”
Ashley - “Good Morning Terry!”
Terry - “Ugh, nobody is allowed to speak to me until I have my coffee.” (Drinks Coffee) 10 minutes later
Terry - “Okay Ashley I’m ready to talk.”
Do any of these statements sound similar to things you say, hear or think when it comes to caffeine intake?
Caffeine is the main ingredient in coffee is a powerful nervous system stimulant that’s naturally derived from over 60 different plant sources, this includes coffee beans, tea leaves, cacao seeds, and cola nut seeds. Caffeine has proven to have many positive effects which include improved concentration, focus, bowel movement and liver function. Which is why almost 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day. (80 Million American Adults)
The downside is that most people have become dependent on caffeine and in my opinion for one of two reasons: either for social reasons or because the physical withdrawal symptoms experienced when it’s not being consumed. Caffeine addiction can cause our body to no longer function naturally. This can lead to side effects such as poor sleep quality, energy fluctuations throughout the day, brain fog & headaches, and eventually weight gain. (Hint I didn’t state the amount of sleep we get I stated quality of sleep.You can sleep for 8 hours and not have entered your sleep cycles properly.) Both Non-REM and REM sleep are 90-minute cycles which we need to go through 4-6x a night uninterrupted. When caffeine use and/or stress is excessive, hormonal patterns are affected causing these cycles to be negatively impacted.
It is what it is though...
Whether we love the impact or not the fact remains the same, most people love coffee and it will continue to be one the highest produced/consumed products in the world. But, we must learn how to use it to our advantage and not become so dependent that it leads to long term consequences.
In most offices now-a-days, there’s some form of a coffee maker or we can drive by any Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts throughout the day to see the constant flow of customers. Caffeine is one of the top 5 traded commodities throughout the world.
Order Taker - “How may I help you?” or most likely “Go ahead with your order?”
Customer - “May I have a medium caramel smoka-tooka-macchiato w/ 10 sugars and 12 creams.”
Order Taker - “Sure thing, that’ll be 4.45$ please.” Or most likely “It’ll be 4.45$.”
Because most people feel the need to conform, we do what the majority does especially if that person is performing at a higher level than us. This is true when it comes to our youth as well. A study by the Journal of Nutrition Education showed that about 83% of teenagers consume caffeinated beverages regularly and 96% consume them on occasion. They’re consuming caffeine in many forms including soda pop, energy drinks, pre-workout supplements, dark chocolate, and teas. Most kids consume caffeine because they see their parents or other older adults using and abusing it. No one really knows the actual benefits or consequences.
Prior studies show that many adolescents are consuming 60-800 mg per day. The Mayo Clinic suggest a maximum of 100 mg a day for adolescents and none for younger children.
Caffeine naturally has a high affinity with our bodies. The forms of caffeine that we consume are delicious; and when used properly, helps put us in a positive state. For those simple reasons, caffeine is highly addictive. The majority of consumers have a belief that caffeine “gives us energy.” However, we must be made aware that caffeine does not “give us energy.”
While you’re awake during the day your body is producing a neurotransmitter by-product known as adenosine that decreases wakefulness and increases sleep (or likelihood of sleep).
Adenosine has an effect on many parts of the brain, but it plays a major role in the basal forebrain which is responsible for cognition function (regulating arousal and attention; also, memory). Adenosine essentially slows or inhibits the activity of this part of the brain by stimulating the onset non-REM sleep.
So, what does caffeine have to do with this?
Caffeine is a psychoactive substance (directly affects the brain), which gives caffeine the ability to cross the blood brain barrier and stimulate the central nervous system. Caffeine acts as an adenosine receptor antagonist meaning it can fit in certain adenosine receptor sites promoting wakefulness. This can potentially cause sleep disturbances and ultimately poor sleep quality. As adenosine levels reach a point within the brain where it would normally cause a response that it's time to get rest, but caffeine has been consumed excessively or too late into the day, these receptor sites are now filled by caffeine. This acts like the friend or pestering coworker who doesn’t get personal space. As a result of this the body doesn’t get the signal that it needs to wind down; therefore you’re able to continue pushing along.
What’s the problem? It sounds awesome we’re able to prolong our day and get more done...
Since adenosine is not able to fill its receptors and the body begins to function differently; our stress hormone levels rise and your brain and organs are overworked because they’re not able to get the rest and recovery they need meaning the endocrine system is affected as well. Two powerful stress hormones are produced excessively, namely adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol.
Adrenaline is our fight-or-flight, go hard or go home, #GETSOME hormone. This is the hormone that allows us to exhibit great strengths; like a woman whose able lift a car to save her baby. It’s what allowed us to evolve and survive through evolution. But, in today's world we’re no longer running from a saber tooth tiger. Instead we’re overproducing it due to high amounts of mental and emotional stress, and also by abusing substances like caffeine. The downside to overstimulating this hormone is that when it spikes, everything is great and your operating at a high level. What follows is a crash below what you felt before you stimulated it. When that happens, you tend to not be a pleasant person to be around either. That’s where we get statements such as the one in the beginning of this article. With that, the caffeine cycle starts or continues because we “need it” to “give us energy.”.
Cortisol has become a bad guy in the world now-a-days. This is due to the fact that we don’t understand its function. Cortisol is what allows us to be awake, energetic and alert; it gives us our strength and vitality each day. The problem lies in the fact that its either being under-or overproduced at the wrong times. Cortisol has a huge impact on our body’s daily rhythm. Think of it as a fresh batch of coffee in the morning made by your adrenal glands and by bedtime the “coffee” is mostly used up. Cortisol levels are naturally high in the morning upon waking up with the purpose of allowing us to be alert, active, and enjoy our mission in life. But, our lives tend to not follow this natural rhythm. Most people tend to be tired throughout the day hence why we depend on caffeine. By bedtime were physically tired but still alert (our minds constantly racing).This cycle starts and continues because we wake up not feeling rested. So, what do we do? Drink more coffee.
According to bestselling author Shawn Stevenson in his book “Sleep Smarter” it takes just 12 days for our bodies to become blunted to the natural response of caffeine. Caffeine has a 5-8 hour half life depending on our biochemical makeup. Meaning that after 6 hours of consuming 200 mg you now have 100 mg in your system; after another 6 hours you now have 50 mg in your system and so on. Hopefully we can now see how consuming excessive amounts of caffeine (over 200-300 mg per day) and or having caffeine later in the day (<8 hours before bed) can affect your ability to sleep and recover properly.
Let’s talk about the kids again…
If an adolescent or younger child is consuming high amounts of caffeine while things such as growth hormone are at its peak and its naturally produced the most at night (around midnight) when they’re supposed to be sleep, how does this affect them long term? Growth hormone has so many benefits that scientists still haven’t uncovered all it does. It plays a major role in recovering physically and keeping our vitality. In our mid-20’s, it begins to decline (depending on our lifestyle more or less). Also, not getting proper sleep due to caffeine consumption or for any other reason causes an inability for your brain to repair itself the way it needs to. The brain has its own waste system called the glymphatic system due to the cells that control it called glial cells. The brain requires about 25% of the overall glucose (substance we use for energy) in order to carry out all its functions. To prove how big that is compared to our counterpart, the chimps brain only uses 8% of its total glucose. The fact that our brains require so much glucose means that it has many functions going on throughout the day. A large amount of waste/toxin removal is needed to function optimally. According to “Sleep Smarter” during sleep glial cells are 10x more active and brain cells reduce in size by about 60% compared to a wakeful state. During adolescence or younger years when development is crucial, it’s probably not the best time to start interrupting and altering these natural functions considering the potential long term effects.
Intelligent Caffeine Approach
After getting all this information most people will probably think they need to completely stop drinking caffeine because it seems to cause so many long term problems. Others probably don’t care and that's okay as well. But, first let's look at some different approaches we can take either way.
For those planning on going cold turkey on caffeine consumption especially when you’ve been consuming more than the recommended amount for long periods of time, just a warning, you may experience what’s known as caffeine withdrawal or hangover. The reason for this is because caffeine causes vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels), but when caffeine isn’t consumed vasodilation is caused which allows blood to flow to areas freely that were once constricted. This is mostly felt in the head and neck areas similar to migraines and can be portrayed as a headache.
Try a caffeined form of tea (Earl Grey, White Tea, Black Tea instead. It’s not just the caffeine itself that matters, but the form in which you consume it matters as well. (Different forms of consumption impact the body differently). While doing this, increase your water intake and add high quality sea salt (Mediterranean) because the kidneys will be excreting both fluid and salt as they’re working to change blood chemistry. Also increasing fiber intake will help with bowel movements because coffee is believed to stimulate bowel movements - this will help things continue to move along. You can also opt for a decaffeinated tea or coffee in order to enjoy the taste, aroma, antioxidants, social and bowel-movement benefits. You can add 100-200 mg of L-theanine to every cup of coffee. L-theanine will help blunt some of the negative side effects caffeine has while also help increase cognitive focus and mental alertness.
Opt for 1-2 cups of medium roast coffee which has lower amounts of caffeine and higher amounts of antioxidants. Consuming a medium roast coffee that’s gone through a smokeless process removes a cancer causing chemical called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which gives coffee the burnt flavor its known for.
This approach is for someone NOT physiologically dependent on caffeine but feels really alert at night and can’t seem to fall asleep. Or they may be having recurring late nights for whatever reason and can’t pull themselves from bed in the morning. You can help get yourself back on the right path by causing a cortisol spike by consuming some caffeine first thing in the morning. (We learned earlier caffeine incites cortisol production using it in this sense will help get things moving in the right direction.)
For those that are dependent or use coffee regularly
Go 7-10 days off every 1 to 2 months (Use decaf version)
If you’re using the recommended amount (1-2 cups of black coffee, tea, or a pre-workout supplement) going 2 months on 1 month off is reasonable and shouldn’t cause any withdrawal symptoms.
Use as needed. This for those who don’t use caffeine regularly only when they “need it”; meaning a performance, something really important like a project or big speech - which only encompasses a few days. It’s used as boost not something that's dependent upon like food and water.
Set a caffeine curfew that will allow most of it to be out of your system before bedtime. (>8 hours before bed)
With all that's been shared in this article; caffeine is being used with the intention of getting the positive effects in both the short and long term. But, for many reasons such as misinformation, not truly understanding our bodies and/or the effect caffeine has on it, many don’t properly use it. My hope is that this article will help you make some positive changes that will help improve your health and overall happiness in life.
Adolescent attitudes and beliefs regarding caffeine and the consumption of caffeinated beverages, Paige Turton et al., Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2015.12.004), published March 2016.
Bjorness, T. E., & Greene, R. W. (n.d.). Adenosine and Sleep. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2769007/
Mayo Clinic, Caffeine: how much is too much?, accessed 22 September 2018.
Stevenson, S. (n.d.). Sleep smarter. Model House Publishing, pp.27-34.