Millions of people consume caffeine every day. It gets us through long shifts and can help us beat the urge to sleep to meet our midnight deadlines. However, caffeine, though amazing in idea, may be slowly wreaking havoc on our health.
Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in the world, and with energy drinks becoming increasingly popular (particularly among youth), it is crucial to consider the effects of these two drinks’ active ingredient: caffeine.
Why does caffeine keep us awake? The reason is largely due to its molecular structure. A chemical in the brain called adenosine accumulates and binds to receptors throughout the day, which causes us to feel tired. Chemicals in the brain function like puzzle pieces, as they will only fit into their corresponding receptor. Caffeine has a similar structure to adenosine, which allows it to bind to adenosine’s receptors. However, since it isn’t actually adenosine, the brain does not receive the “tiredness” signal that adenosine would usually cause; this is the main reason why caffeine helps to fight grogginess and increase the time one can spend awake. Caffeine also stimulates the release of the hormone adrenaline, which increases blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing speed.
Though caffeine can be great for all-nighters and long shifts, repeated consumption can quickly lead to problems. The brain responds to long-term caffeine usage by increasing the number of adenosine receptors in the brain. This allows more adenosine to bind in the brain, causing one to feel tired even if they have had their regular dose of caffeine, which means more caffeine (or more coffee) is required in order to induce the same response. This is why, over time, one has to increase the amount of coffee drank in a day in order to stay awake, a property which makes caffeine a mildly addictive substance. In addition to this requiring consistently higher levels to have the same effect, several studies have demonstrated that caffeine increases the levels of stress hormones in the body. This, combined with the lower amounts of sleep that many coffee drinkers get can (over time) lead to increased risks of heart disease, type II diabetes, and high blood pressure.
So, should we stop drinking coffee? Not necessarily. Coffee, like anything, is best consumed in moderation. Being attentive throughout the day by keeping track of how much caffeine one eats or drinks is the best way to ensure he or she can stay below their maximum intake. This means reading labels and warnings listed on food and drink items, and viewing nutrition facts online or in-store in the case of fast food coffee. The American FDA advises that the average adult consume no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine (roughly five cups of coffee OR two energy drinks) each day, though this number is a generous maximum and may vary based on factors such as height, weight, gender, and age.
Beginning the process of lowering caffeine intake can be quite challenging, however, it is perfectly possible. Here are some helpful tips to start the process.
- Trick your brain. Try substituting portions of your daily coffee intake with decaffeinated coffee. This can help trick your brain into thinking that it feels more energetic by having your body taste and smell coffee without actually ingesting any caffeine. This is known as the placebo effect. Slowly changing the ratios of caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee over time will help to adjust the brain to lower caffeine levels.
- Get more sleep. Though this is not the easiest option for many people, it is something that most can work into their lives. Rearranging schedules and planning ahead are the best ways to increase work time efficiency, allowing for more free time which can make up for lost sleeping hours.
- Don’t do it alone. Time after time, research suggests that making life changes at the same time as someone else makes the process much more tolerable and increases instances of success. With social connections being another core pillar of the CHANGE intervention, trying to lean off caffeine with a partner, colleague, or friend can make the process much easier on longer and tougher days.
Like any major lifestyle change, the bottom line is longevity. These are not guaranteed methods of lowering caffeine intake by any means. The most important part of the process is finding a plan you can stick to. Moderation and consistency are two of the most important elements to success.
- Tolley, A. S. T. (2014). Caffeine : Consumption, Side Effects and Impact on Performance and Mood. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
- Dansinger, M. (2019, May 4). Type 2 Diabetes and Caffeine: The Truth about Blood Sugar. https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/diabetes-and-caffeine.
- Fawkes, J. (2019, March 3). A Very Thorough Guide to Quitting Coffee and Other Caffeine. Medium. https://medium.com/better-humans/how-to-quit-caffeine-in-one-week-e041892698ec.
- Caffeine. Caffeine – Alcohol and Drug Foundation. (2020, June 5). https://adf.org.au/drug-facts/caffeine/
Written by Irshad Sayed (High school student), Edited by Doug Klein