A Caffeinated Life – A Perspective on Chemical Aids

I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee lately and my analytical side started to wonder how I could time my coffee consumption to my productive or less than productive times.

Brief history of caffeine

Caffeine, for around 2000 years, is being used to increase mental alertness, fight fatigue, increase response time, alter mood states, and explored for military use.

Since caffeine is so widely used, it’s also been widely studied. Caffeine has been studied so much that its withdrawal effects, is now included as a new mental disorder according to the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5).

Despite the fact that the real discoverer of caffeine as a stimulant is unknown; legend has it that it was first discovered in Ethiopia around the 3rd century AD when a shepherd observed that his goats became active and agitated after consuming berries or “beans”. The shepherd tried chewing the berries and noticed their effect as a stimulant. These berries were used in a monastery; the monks brewed the beans in hot water and discovered the beverage helped keep them awake them during long nights of prayer.

Cultivation of the coffee plant might have started as early as the 6th century AD, possibly in Ethiopia. Elsewhere in Africa, coffee berries were beaten and blended with fat to function as a food to fuel warriors in battle. By around 1000 AD, the berries reached Yemen, where the beverage have become very popular and ingesting it as a social ritual. From there it expanded to Europe and the Americas through trade.

How caffeine works

Have you ever been in a meeting and feel yourself getting tired and not focusing? Of course you have, and we have all reached for a caffeine source (coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks) to help us through a meeting, a long day at work, or a long road trip.

Caffeine and the brain

Caffeine is a molecule similar to a chemical found in all our cells, adenosine. In our brains adenosine acts as a depressant of the central nervous system. Normally, adenosine triggers sleep and suppresses wakefulness by slowing down nerve activity. Adenosine also binds to cells causing blood vessels in the brain to dilate; this helps us by increasing air intake while sleep.

Adenosine levels decrease over time as we sleep, this will trigger our body to start “waking up”.   While we’re awake, the levels of adenosine in our brain increase over time, and we get tired or lose mental alertness. If you were a nerve cell and saw caffeine, you would think it looks like adenosine and it would bind to you like a lock and key.

Marzagalli R, Castorina A. 2015

Our cells bind to caffeine thinking its adenosine; this means you have free-floating adenosine your brain without a place to bind. This change in binding results in you feeling less tired and your cell activity speeds up. It also causes the blood vessels in your brain to constrict; this is why some headache medications have caffeine. Increased adenosine also triggers our bodies to release another stimulant, adrenaline. So now you have another stimulant increasing in your system and impacting your mood, emotions, and behavior.

Caffeine, blocking adenosine binding, results in a physical change in the brain; it causes us to have more adenosine receptors. This is why it takes increasing amounts of caffeine over time to have the same stimulant effects. The more adenosine receptors you have the more caffeine you need.

Caffeine and the body

Caffeine’s main effect on the body is an increased temporary sense of wakefulness and alertness but can also have side effects such as: shakes, sleeplessness or a hard time falling asleep, fast or uneven heartbeat, high blood pressure, headaches, nervousness, dizziness, and dehydration.

How long does it take for caffeine to work?

It takes about 45 minutes for caffeine to reach the maximum number of cells, so the more you drink at one time will not increase your alertness if your cells are already full. Caffeine can also stay in your body for around 16 hours as our bodies work to remove the molecule.

How do I drink it effectively?

Based on the 45 minutes it takes to reach maximum effect, you could consume 20 milligrams, the equivalent of 8 fluid ounces of green tea, to 200 milligrams, the equivalent of 16 fluid ounces of coffee per hour to maintain focus and alertness. Twenty milligrams is enough to maintain alertness without the jitteriness of constantly drinking coffee or energy drinks; though up to 400 milligrams per day is considered safe. If you think you’ve consumed too much caffeine and you don’t feel right, please contact your health care provider for help.

The downside of caffeine

Researchers found that caffeine does increase performance; it only comes at a cost, the withdrawal. Essentially, you can’t increase performance and avoid withdrawal. During withdrawal, your performance decreases and so does your mood.   The only way to increase performance and mood, or feel normal, is to drink caffeine. This will only bring you back to increased performance and mood for a short time. This is the basis of addiction.

Caffeine precautions

Caffeine withdrawal symptoms can begin within 12 to 24 hours of caffeine consumption and last between 2 and 9 days. Once you stop consuming caffeine it takes about week to 12 days for your adenosine receptors to decrease thereby breaking your caffeine addiction.

Final thoughts

Caffeine has been used for thousands of years as a mental and physical stimulant. There are benefits to drinking caffeinated drinks: alertness and increased concentration; but there are consequences to drinking caffeinated drinks: dependence leading to physical symptoms of withdrawals within 12-24 hrs. We know it takes about 45 minutes to have your receptors full of caffeine, and it takes around a week to 12 days to leave your body.

Now that you know how long it takes for caffeine to reach maximum levels, try to challenge yourself by strategically drinking caffeine around your lifestyle. For a greater challenge and targeting caffeine use, try to go without caffeine and break your addiction. Then use caffeine in a controlled targeted way. It might just save you money (another bonus) because you’ll need less caffeine to keep you alert.

Addiction is a serious condition, if you need help:



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