Updated: Apr 4
In this article I want to discuss caffeine, how it effects our brain/ body, and give some strategies to consume caffeine more effectively. I am not here to say that you should or should not drink caffeine. The science tells us that everyone experiences caffeine differently, so you should decide what is best for you. My hope is that this article can shed some light on how it works to help you make an informed decision on your consumption.
Just to clear the air before we get started, I personally consume about 1 cup of coffee 5 days a week…
Throughout this article I may refer to specific drinks like coffee, in some instances this may be interchangeable with other caffeinated drinks such as tea.
Let’s jump right in.
Caffeine is a chemical stimulant that shares many similar traits with stimulants such as amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin (Marshall, 2020). This is not designed to put a harsh label on caffeine but I believe it is important to note that it is classified as a drug. Being a drug, it does have the ability to cause a form of reliance or addiction. You can see this across the globe with individuals who claim they cannot function in the morning without their hot cup of Joe.
Having addictive properties is valuable for companies that profit from regular and repeat customers. Therefore, you see caffeine added to many products like chocolate, soda and energy drinks. (More on the effects of adding sugar with caffeine later)
With that being said, caffeine isn’t all bad. It is often argued to be the discovery that ignited an evolution in humans, sling shotting us into rapid advancements and increased productivity. It also has a massive list of ways it can be effectively used for performance and within a medical application.
To understand how caffeine works within our body we first need to understand a chemical called Adenosine. Adenosine is a chemical in our brain that is responsible for making us tired and helping us fall asleep. It completes this action by binding to receptors in our brain that signal sleepiness and suppress different processes that are responsible for wakefulness. Adenosine will build up over your time being awake, eventually leading to being tired at night and falling asleep (Peters, 2020).
This is a different chemical than hypocretin, that is reduced from Narcolepsy. Hypocretin regulates our sleep/ wake schedule and is highest during the day alerting our body to stay awake. Hence why decreased amounts of it often lead to daytime sleepiness (Cherney, 2020)
When you consume caffeine, the caffeine blocks the receptors that adenosine binds with. When the receptor is blocked, adenosine cant send the “sleepy” signal to the brain and we don’t feel fatigue. Caffeine also causes increased neuron firing in the brain, which signals for adrenaline to be released, giving you a boost of energy (Marshall, 2020).
The next chemical that caffeine effects is Dopamine. Dopamine is the pleasure chemical that is in our brain and is often associated with why we do the things that we do. When something is pleasureful or appears to be beneficial, dopamine is released (Cristol, 2021). We will then seek out those things again, unconsciously seeking more dopamine. Often when we experience the “feel good” feeling, like everything is right in our world, we are experiencing dopamine. It is a wonderful chemical but can cause issues if unbalanced. We often feel symptoms of fatigue and depression preceding a large dopamine release because large dumps create a deficit and push us below our baseline levels (Marshall, 2020).
Dopamine is also a chemical that is released by common stimulants used for Narcolepsy. Often, when you feel that euphoric feeling from being awake, it’s more likely a combination of being alert and a rush of dopamine. I will be discussing this more in a future article.
When you consume caffeine, dopamine production is manipulated to make you feel good. It is speculated that this is part of the reason individuals become addicted to caffeine in the first place.
Also, as with any drug there is a tolerance that is built up over time. In order to get the same effects you need to ingest more of it. Increase the amount consumed usually equates to increased dependency.
So, what happenes when the caffeine wears off?
Everyone metabolizes caffeine at a different rate but most of us have experienced the caffeine crash.
The crash is experienced when the caffeine wears off and the receptors for adenosine open back up. During this time frame adenosine has been building up to higher amounts than normal and hits you all at once, making you feel the crash. Dopamine also dips lower than normal levels and can leave you feeling symptoms of fatigue and depression. This entire process is amplified when adding additional substances into the mix, such as sugar (Huberman, 2021).
Again, this process is different for everyone and caffeine has been shown to have positive effects on top of its ability to increase our awareness and focus. So, like with everything listen to your body and use this information to make the decision that best suits your life.
If you are going to stick with your morning cup of caffeine elixir, here are a few tips to make it more effective.
1- Consume 8-16 oz of water before consuming caffeine to maintain healthy hydration. Consuming caffeine while dehydrated increases the liklyhood of its negative effects like the crash or feeling jittery.
2- Avoid adding sugar or sugary substances to the caffeine. Adding sugar with caffeine creates an even higher dopamine release along with a bigger crash and dependency to these substances. Unfortunately, artificial sweeteners and caffeine have a negative effect on our body as well (Huberman, 2021). I will discuss the reasoning behind this in another article.
3- Adding fats to your caffeine will help slow down the digestion of the caffeine, giving you a longer and more stable energy boost. This was made famous by “Bulletproof Coffee”, that adds 1-2 Tbs of MCT oil and 1-2 tsp of ghee butter. Personally, that recipe was difficult for me to digest, so I just stick with the MCT oil (Bulletproof, 2021).
4- Avoid drinking caffeine later in the day. Caffeine has a half-life of about 6 hours but remember, everyone is different. Dr. Matt Walker (Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkley) recommends not consuming caffeine within 10 hours of sleep to ensure it doesn’t affect your sleep cycles at night (Huberman, 2021). When dealing with Narcolepsy it is best to do everything possible not to disrupt your sleep further (Kirsch,2018).
I think it’s important to remember that caffeine can be used as a tool, and it can be effective for some individuals. Finding the least effective amount can help provide the benefits of consuming it, while decreasing the negative effects that it may have on us.
For those of you considering cutting back on your caffeine consumption, remember that caffeine is a drug that creates dependency. If you are decreasing your consumption amounts you may experience negative side effects including fatigue, irritability, and depression ect.. Your body will adapt to the changes, but it may take some time. Be patient!
If you enjoyed this content, I appreciate any feedback and if you found it valuable, share it to others that may benefit from it!
Also, for a more in depth understanding of these processes I highly recommend checking out the Huberman Lab Podcast. I will leave a link to 2 great episodes to get you started below.
Huberman Lab Podcast - Master Your Sleep & Be More Alert When Awake | Episode 2
Huberman Lab Podcast - Dr. Matthew Walker: The Science & Practice of Perfecting Your Sleep | Episode 31
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*Disclaimer: Information that is provided is based off credible sources listed below and based off personal experience. In no way am I claiming this information will cure or change any disease or symptom. I am not a doctor, and don’t pretend to be one online. Please do your own research and consult with your doctor before make any changes.
Cherney, Kristeen. “Narcolepsy and Your Brain: Effects and More.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 23 Mar. 2020, https://www.healthline.com/health/narcolepsy/narcolepsy-and-your-brain#brain-chemicals.
Cristol, Hope. “Dopamine: What It Is & What It Does.” WebMD, WebMD, 14 June 2021, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-dopamine.
Huberman, Andrew. “Dr. Matthew Walker: The Science & Practice of Perfecting Your Sleep | Episode 31 - Huberman Lab.” 2 Aug. 2021.
Kirsch, Douglas. “Self-Care.” Self-Care | Narcolepsy, 21 Feb. 2018, https://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/narcolepsy/treating-narcolepsy/self-care.
Marshall Brain, Charles W. Bryant & Matt Cunningham. “How Caffeine Works.” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 27 Jan. 2020, https://science.howstuffworks.com/caffeine.htm.
Peters, Brandon. “How Adenosine Helps You Get a Good Night's Sleep.” Verywell Health, Verywell Health, 23 July 2020, https://www.verywellhealth.com/adenosine-and-sleep-3015337.
Staff, Bulletproof. “Bulletproof Coffee Recipe.” Bulletproof, 1 Sept. 2021, https://www.bulletproof.com/recipes/bulletproof-diet-recipes/bulletproof-coffee-recipe/?gclid=CjwKCAiAtouOBhA6EiwA2nLKH10_fnvJNfyaIMe34olhhcTFEZHDCyTCvoB_K2if5xRX6-EKHnZ-QBoCKRUQAvD_BwE.