Caffeine And The Brain: Positives and Negatives

Depending upon where you grow up and your particular family influences, caffeine can be a “magic elixir” drank literally from the bottle if you were born in a country like Brazil.  Or, here in the United States, where it can be looked upon as a “demon stimulant” that is normally an artificial means of revving up the brain, part of an addictive component of coffee or various soft drinks, and is boycotted or prohibited religiously (the Mormons, for example). As with many substances, genetic makeup can greatly influence how one’s body interacts with caffeine.  For most of my life, a problem (especially) in Graduate School, caffeine had no impact on my alertness.  Cans and cans of super caffeinated Jolt only served to make me jittery, but not more awake, a problem in the computer lab at 3:00 am…  Then I passed through a period where it actually DID seem to keep me awake with a brain running full speed while my body was screaming for rest.  For some reason I am back to my original, “normal” state and can drink even Brazilian cafezinho right up until I go to bed with no impact towards staying awake.  Confused about the good or the bad of this world drink?  Read on!

Caffeine affects several aspects of the brain and, by implication, our bodies.  The chemical Serotonin is elevated upon consumption of caffeine.  This leads to a feeling of being happy, having a more positive outlook mentally.

Caffeine also suppresses a neurotransmitter called adenosine.  This specifically affects alertness and the feeling of being sleepy.  The levels may differ, but think of a thermometer that, once it gets to a certain temperature, the air conditioner kicks on.  When Adenosine gets to a certain level, your body decides its time to go to sleep.  During the night, the brain resets and you wake up (ideally) alert and raring to go for another day until it builds back up to “sleepy” levels.  As caffeine blocks adenosine while also stimulating other chemicals in the brain like glutamate and dopamine, you feel effects of increased energy, increased performance and even slowing the brain’s aging process.  As serotonin is also part of the side effects, caffeine even helps with the effects of depression.  Learning for most people is infinitely easier when one is in a more positive mode, even as confidence is the hallmark of most successful athletes.  Studies released show that caffeine can boost learning by as much as 10%.  As it also is useful due to blood vessel constriction for the relief of headaches (normal and migraine), this also lends caffeine to brain performance.  It is HARD to learn anything when your brain is pounding in pain from wide open blood vessels.

Is it any wonder then that caffeine is found in many “junk food” beverages, much less the popular energy drinks of the day (almost $3 BILLION in sales in 2017!), pre workout mixes and other sources?  Coffee still leads the way, $18-20 Billion in sales in 2017, from the home brewed “regular” coffees to the specialty shop brews of Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, etc.

Good resources for more information on this topic:

https://blog.bulletproof.com/the-benefits-of-coffee-your-brain-on-caffeine/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763416300690

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