Caffeine has become such a staple in our lives that we easily forget it is a psychoactive drug. Many of us wouldn’t dream of starting the day without a cup of coffee. It is perhaps one of the only heavily sanctioned and widely consumed addictive drug that people use on a daily basis, apart from cigarettes. But what is caffeine? How does it work? And why do we get addicted to it?
How Coffee Works
Caffeine has mind-altering effects. It is absorbed through the small intestine and it can dissolve in water and fat, which means it dissolves in the blood, our cell membranes, and most importantly, can cross the blood-brain barrier.
Caffeine has mind-altering effects. It is absorbed through the small intestine and it can dissolve in water and fat, which means it dissolves in the blood… Caffeine is not a stimulant but a stimulant enabler.
Caffeine is similar to another molecule called adenosine, which occurs naturally in our brains as a byproduct of energy production. Molecules in our bodies are like keys and their receptors are like the locks. Put the lock in the key and something happens. Caffeine fits into adenosine’s lock (receptor) and stops adenosine. If caffeine wasn’t there adenosine would fit the lock and make you feel tired; when caffeine is there, it enters the lock instead and delays tiredness for a few hours. As adenosine can’t enter its lock (receptor) it floats around and causes the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, a stimulating hormone. Other stimulating hormones, glutamate and dopamine, join the fun, providing a surge of energy, improving mental performance and slowing age-related mental decline. Caffeine also increases serotonin, a hormone often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’ as it has such a huge influence on mood.
Summary: Caffeine prevents adenosine from making you feel tired and increases stimulatory hormones adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin. Caffeine is not a stimulant but a stimulant enabler.
Some coffee haters talk about jitters and stomach discomfort. I used to avoid coffee for this very reason. Then I discovered Bulletproof Coffee, made using low-mould toxin coffee. Invisible mould grows on coffee during processing and storage, and the toxins (mycotoxins) from the mould can seriously, negatively, affect our bodies. Although backed up by plenty of evidence1-6 this is a difficult idea to stomach. The controversy perhaps comes from the fact that different people have different levels of sensitivity to the mould – if you’re less sensitive, you’re less likely to believe that there is an issue with mould as you won’t notice it. If I drink a cup of instant coffee or certain varieties of cocoa, which is also highly susceptible to mould, I feel atrocious. Even mixed blend Italian coffees affect me. However, when I drink low-mould coffees, which have been grown in high-altitude, are single-estate, and from Central America, I don’t get the negative effects. The only way to know whether it’s the mould that is affecting you is to test and see whether you get any adverse effects. Bear in mind, however, that even if mouldy coffee doesn’t give you the jitters, it can still rob your brain of performance.
What Makes Caffeine So Wonderful?
Let’s face it, most of us LOVE caffeine. It wakes you up, allows you to get through the day, do your work, write articles, and even helps with your workout performance. Many would shudder at the thought of NOT having a cup of coffee in the morning. Why is it so good? Apart from making you less tired and more stimulated, caffeine:
- Helps you to work faster, not better.
- Improves memory recall.7
- Contains antioxidants and acts an antioxidant itself.8
- Lowers risk of type-2 diabetes9 and increases insulin sensitivity.10
- Contains polyphenols which improve carbohydrate metabolism.11
- Induces rapid fat loss as it is a potent thermogenic.12
- Increases metabolic rate and fat burning (mobilisation and oxidation). Pair this with fats and ketosis and the results can be remarkable.
- Can improve your exercise performance by increasing power output for both anaerobic and aerobic exercise. Take it before a workout for that extra edge.
The optimal dose of caffeine for mental performance is around 20–200 mg/hour (an average cup contains 100–150 mg caffeine). Your brain can only use so much caffeine at once, so if you drink it all at once, some of it will go to waste. It’s best to take smaller, more frequent doses.
Summary: Caffeine can improve memory, brain function, insulin sensitivity, accelerate fat loss, and improve exercise performance. Coffee is a rich source of antioxidants and polyphenols (which are great for your gut bacteria).
There is a neat little trick called coffee napping. It plays on the mechanism through which adenosine makes you sleepy. Adenosine is the brain’s way of telling you to sleep. Adenosine is the teacher’s pet turning the lights off on time, whilst caffeine is the naughty child who keeps the lights on to stay up late. Caffeine maintains alertness for a few hours, but the effects wear off after a couple of hours. This is where napping comes in. Sleeping naturally clears adenosine from the brain. So drink a cup of coffee, have a nap, and during the 20 minutes that it takes your body to absorb the caffeine, the sleep will clear the adenosine and potentiate the effects of the caffeine. Don’t sleep for longer though, as your body will fall into the deeper stages of sleep and you will feel groggy when you wake up.
Coffee is the best-known source of caffeine. It comes in many forms, but one of the most potent is when you mix it with fats. The fats increase the absorption of caffeine; when you blend it with MCT oils and butter/ghee, the little fat-transporting molecules (micelles) help the absorption of the caffeine. Fatty coffee also puts you in ketosis, which, combined with the caffeine effects, provides a double-whammy on cognitive enhancement. If you’re really into brain enhancement, then combing fatty coffee with nootropics (like piracetam and modafinil) can be extremely potent.
Green tea is another great source of caffeine. Matcha is high-grade green tea leaves that have been ground to a fine powder. Rather than infusing the leaves in hot water, the powder dissolves and mixes with hot water so that the leaves are actually consume. It is high in antioxidants and contains L-theanine, an amino acid that provides a mellowing aspect, which perfectly complements the caffeine buzz. A cup of coffee and a cup of matcha are a match(a) made in heaven (excuse the pun).
Caffeine sensitivity varies from person to person. Your genes affect how quickly you process (metabolise) caffeine: you can be a slow or fast metaboliser. To find out which you are, you can get your genes tested vis genetic testing companies such as 23andme.
Caffeine can also really affect your sleep, especially if you’re highly sensitive to its effects. It tends to increase cortisol production (your stress hormone), which inhibits melatonin production (your sleep hormone). If you’re particularly sensitive, don’t drink caffeine after lunch.
So What Happens When You Drink a Lot of Coffee, Every Day?
The brain changes its physical characteristics and chemistry over time. Since caffeine spends all its time in the adenosine keyhole (receptor), the brain grows new keyholes to maintain a balance. It also decreases the number of keyholes for noradrenaline. This results in an increased tolerance over time; it takes more caffeine to have the same effects.
Downsides and Dependency
I’ve learnt the hard way about caffeine tolerance and dependency. Over a period of a year I went from drinking no coffee to at least 2–4 big cups per day. When I found out I was in pre-adrenal fatigue, I gave it up, which began one of the most intensely unpleasant experience of my life. Pounding headaches for days and a period of about a month feeling terrible. Going cold turkey was NOT fun, and recently when experimenting with weaning off coffee, I’ve used methods that have made it far less unpleasant. But why did I feel so bad? Caffeine addiction.
Caffeine is chemically addictive and caffeine withdrawal is considered a mental disorder. Withdrawal starts within 24 hours of stopping. Symptoms include mental fogginess, lack of alertness, fatigued muscles, and increased irritability. Then the unavoidable throbbing headache. These headaches are likely caused by changes in blood flow to the brain.13
Overdoing caffeine can contribute to burnout and severe adrenal depletion. This is because caffeine forces your adrenal glands to excrete lots of stimulating hormones (adrenaline), even when your glands are tired. Caffeine can also inhibit the activity of folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6, and interfere with regulation of homocysteine and cholesterol, which are cardiovascular disease risk factors.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. If you manage your caffeine and coffee intake sensibly, then you don’t have to be a slave to it, and it can enhance your life in many ways. It’s advisable to take regular breaks by ‘caffeine cycling’. Over a 7–14 day period, the brain will decrease the amount of adenosine receptors, resetting to your baseline. Try taking 1–2 weeks off every two months. Replace normal coffee with decaf. I am extremely sensitive to the effects of caffeine, so I can’t just go cold turkey. I spend a week gradually decreasing the amount of caffeinated coffee, using a 50/50 caffeinated:decaf mix. After the winding down period, I can easily stop without the bad headaches. Taking the weekends off is also a good strategy. Be careful with decaf, however, as many standard brands use nasty solvents to separate the caffeine. A good clean source are beans that are decaffeinated using the Swiss water method, for example Grumpy Mule or Bulletproof Upgraded Decaf Coffee. Decaf has as many antioxidants as caffeinated beans, so you won’t miss out there.
Don’t listen to the coffee haters, but be aware of your own sensitivity, dependence, and relationship with caffeine. Take regular breaks and use it when it really counts. Don’t rely on it to energise you in the morning (try cold showering instead!), rather use it as an aid to strategically improve cognitive and physical performance.
How sensitive are you to coffee? Do you rely on coffee to wake you up in the morning? Have you tried Bulletproof Coffee and noticed a difference? Leave a comment below with your experience!
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- Koppelstaetter, F. (2005). Influence of Caffeine Excess on Activation Patterns in Verbal Working Memory. Poster presented at LPR06: Neuroradiology/Head and Neck (Functional MR). Retrieved 9 March 2016, from http://archive.rsna.org/2005/4418422.html
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