The Benefits of Caffeine
Ah, caffeine. It feels like it makes the world go ‘round, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t love the smell of a freshly brewed pot of coffee first thing in the morning, or look forward to meeting a friend for a java induced afternoon pick-me-up? For many of us, caffeine is one of our best friends. It gets us going in the morning and keeps us going through the afternoon (sometimes into the evening). When imbibed in moderate doses, caffeine has a lot of positive advantages that both directly and indirectly affect the body. Let’s take a look at what caffeine is, how it occurs in nature and what it can do for you.
What is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant found in many different plants, including coffee beans, cocoa beans, kola nuts and tea leaves. The drug itself was not identified until the early 1800’s, but humans have been using caffeine-containing plants since early times. For example, legend says that an ancient Chinese Emperor was said to have discovered tea leaves in 2437 BC after the wind blew them into water he was boiling. He enjoyed the scent and felt revitalized after drinking it. Ethiopians began brewing coffee after noticing that animals seemed more energetic after grazing on certain plants in the fourth century AD. Caffeine has long been shown to increase the effects of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine. This increase leads the user to experience a sense of heightened focus, improved energy and sometimes greater athleticism.
Caffeine is considered completely safe for most healthy adults in doses of up to 400mg per day. In fact, it enjoys Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status with the FDA, meaning that it is not necessary for a food to undergo premarket review if caffeine is used as an additive. While caffeine is found naturally in over 60 different types of plants, it is also created synthetically for use in a wide variety of foods including gum, water and personal hygiene products. Despite this, the FDA reports that approximately 70% - 90% of our caffeine intake comes from coffee and tea. How do you know if you’re within the safe limit? Take a look at the following popular beverages:
8 ounces coffee: 80mg – 100mg
1 ounce espresso: 60mg
12 ounces soft drink: 30mg – 40mg
8 ounces black tea: 50mg
8 ounce energy drink: 40mg – 250mg (depending on the brand)
When considering your caffeine intake, pay attention to how large your drinks are. An average cup of coffee is at least twelve to fourteen ounces, and often over twenty ounces when ordered out. One twenty-ounce coffee contains over 200mg of caffeine alone. There’s no getting around it though, with so many people drinking caffeine-laden drinks on a daily basis, you know there’s a reason beyond how good they taste! Let’s dig into the benefits of caffeine in more detail.
While more than sixty percent of Americans use a steaming cup of joe to jump start their mornings each and every day, the United States does not even rank in the top ten of countries with the highest caffeine consumption (we come in at number eleven). That’s a pretty strong case in favor of what caffeine does for you. It can give you a quick burst of energy in as little as five minutes after your first sip of coffee and reaches its peak effectiveness in less than an hour. For most adults, this energy boost lasts approximately four hours before it begins to wane. As you sip your coffee, the caffeine causes the body to release a class of hormones called catecholamines, which are produced by your adrenal glands. These hormones, such as adrenaline, cause the heart to beat faster, sending blood directly into your muscles while encouraging your liver to release sugar into the bloodstream. This results in the ‘jolt’ most people get from drinking a caffeinated beverage.
This goes hand in hand with energy but deserves its own category. Caffeine stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain, which is responsible for a person’s ability to maintain concentration. People today have more distractions than ever before as they go about their daily lives. Balancing work and family, money worries, employers that expect personnel to be on call 24/7, computers, TV, smartphones…the list goes on. It’s no wonder that people find it hard to sit down and really concentrate on a singular task. How many times a week do you say to someone “Just let me grab a cup of coffee and I’ll get those numbers for you.” Extra dopamine gives you the ability to hone your attention onto whatever needs to be done, when you need to do it. This holds true for any time of day, not just the morning. A cup of coffee or a soft drink in the afternoon can stave off the natural slump that happens around that time. In extreme cases, you can drink it into the night to stave off sleep. The mighty “college all-nighter” is a testament to that. Caffeine should never be used in place of sleep, but for those times when you need an extra push to work late, a cup of coffee will do the trick.
In the same realm as both energy and focus, alertness is another benefit of imbibing caffeine when the need arises. Suffering from a sleepless night but still have to be on your toes for a big test or a large presentation at work? Maybe you’re trying to make up time on a long road trip and need to drive into the wee hours of the morning. Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors that are responsible for telling us when it’s time to go to sleep. Combine that with the extra energy, focus and wakefulness that comes along with caffeine ingestion and it’s a safe way to get through those times when you need to go the extra mile.
Caffeine has a marked benefit when it comes to exercise performance. As discussed above, it goes to work on the central nervous system increasing your alertness, mental acuity, energy and focus. It also helps suppress feelings of fatigue, and possibly lowers your awareness of perceived exertion and pain. These last two, especially, can allow an athlete to capitalize on extra momentum needed to reach certain goals. There is also some evidence that caffeine improves the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel, helping you tap into reserve stores of energy.
Most energy supplements used by endurance athletes such as performance gels, chews and drinks contain caffeine. At one time it was thought that an athlete should abstain from caffeine for a period of time before an event to reduce sensitivity, thereby getting a larger boost when returning to previous caffeine levels. However, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology tested this theory using forty male endurance-trained cyclists. What they found is that there was no advantage when abstaining from caffeine prior to an event, regardless of the typical level of consumption.
Above and beyond the other positive cognitive effects of caffeine, studies have shown that in some people, the use of caffeine improves memory. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University completed a study where participants took 200mg of caffeine after looking at a series of images. The ones who had taken the caffeine were markedly better at choosing those same images among similar ones the next day than those that were not given caffeine. In 2016, a separate study among college students found that drinking caffeinated coffee resulted in an increase of memory performance specifically during a time when their normal circadian rhythms were at a natural low. This further substantiates the theory that caffeine provides an increase in both short- and long-term memory.
While not directly linked to weight loss on its own, caffeine can help aid you in your efforts to reduce your weight. The increase in energy obtained when drinking coffee or tea may slightly raise your metabolic rate and burn more calories. Beyond that, caffeine can keep your appetite in check by quelling feelings of hunger. There is lots of anecdotal evidence that a mid-morning or mid-afternoon cup of coffee can alleviate the want of additional snacks. Be sure that you’re cognizant of the amount of caffeine you’re taking, and don’t exceed the recommended dosage of 400mg per day on a regular basis. Never use caffeine as a primary way to lose weight.
Alzheimer and Parkinson Disease
An important study looked at the association of mid-life coffee and tea consumption and the risk of mental decline due to Alzheimer’s or dementia. They found that people who drank three to five cups of coffee per day had a 65% decrease in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and even those who drank only one or two cups per day saw a modest decrease in risk. In a review of this study in Current Neuropharmacology, experts surmise that this protection is a byproduct of its effect on the A1 and A2A adenosine receptors. The same protection has been found with regards to Parkinson’s disease. The link between drinking coffee and a reduced risk of Parkinson’s goes back to a study completed all the way back in 1968. Since then, it’s been corroborated numerous times. It is generally recognized among those in the scientific community that there is a beneficial element linking the drinking of coffee to a reduced risk of both diseases.
Obviously, this is a less scientific benefit, but drinking beverages that contain caffeine simply tastes good! There are aficionados of both coffee and tea that savor the subtle nuances in flavor, aroma and other qualities between varieties. If you love coffee, and 65% of us do, imagine waking up to that rich scent of a freshly brewed pot. Or remember the feeling of joy at being on the receiving end of a cappuccino complete with a beautiful milk-foam flower. Tea drinkers, don’t you appreciate the ritual of making tea, the warmth of curling up on the couch with a steaming cup in the middle of winter? Add to that, the social factor. Coffee houses have exploded in the past fifteen years. Whether you are meeting a potential mate for the first time or a friend for an afternoon catch up, there is an expectation of comfort and safety in sharing a cuppa with someone you care about. That in and of itself triggers feel-good sensors in the brain, contributing to your overall well being.
Just Listen to Your Body
Caffeine is the most popular legal drug in the world. Over 90% of people benefit from it every single day. A healthy adult who is careful to stay within the 200mg – 400mg daily limit, you will probably experience little in the way of side effects. However, some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. If you pay attention to how your body reacts at different doses, and you will be free to reap the numerous benefits of caffeine to your heart’s content.