You wake up, stumble out of bed, and groggily make your way to the kitchen, hoping you don’t fall asleep while walking down the stairs… and if you’re lucky, you’ll have enough motor control to wait 5 minutes for your coffee to percolate, or even better, you might have a coffee maker with a timer. Talk about bliss!
But as you pour yourself a mug of what seems like heavenly nectar in the morning, take your first sip, and wait for the caffeine to kick in, have your ever asked yourself: what exactly IS this stuff I’m putting into my body? And for that matter, why does it give me such a rush?
Essentially, when you knock back that morning coffee… and afternoon coffee… and late afternoon coffee… you’re taking drugs to give yourself a high. While that sounds somewhat disconcerting, the truth is that caffeine is a drug – and an addictive one, at that. Sure, it may not be as immediately dangerous as other addictive drugs, but that sense of alertness you get after your morning java comes from a reaction in your central nervous system to the stimulants found in your cup.
The Science of Caffeine
Scientifically speaking, the caffeine in your coffee, tea, or even can of Coke, is a plant-based alkaloid found naturally in organic materials such as cocoa beans, tea leaves, guarana, kola nuts and coffee beans. What is more, caffeine may also disguise itself under the names coffeine, mateine, theine, guaranine, or methyltheobromine.
In its natural form, caffeine is a bitter, white powder – which is why most caffeinated beverages require copious amounts of sugar or sweetener to make them tolerable to the human palate. So, why isn’t coffee or tea white? The powder only results from an extraction of the drug from the plant source, but if you’ve ever tried to drink black coffee, you’ve probably experienced the bitter taste of caffeine when it’s undiluted with sugar. Products such as caffeine stimulant pills and some painkillers actually contain pure caffeine, which explains their bitter taste.
Although you ingest caffeine to wake up, plants produce caffeine as a natural pesticide against potential bugs and insects looking for food: when the insects take a bite out of the plant, the caffeine works against their natural physiology to over-stimulate, paralyze and then kill the pests. Almost makes you think twice about reaching for that second cup…
How Caffeine Works
When you take a sip of your caffeinated drink of choice, the chemical properties of the drug are strong enough to evoke an almost immediate reaction inside your body. As the caffeine stimulates your central nervous system, your heart rate will increase and you probably have an increased sense of alertness and awareness. In fact, in addition to elevating your mood and energy level, several scientific studies have recently shown that moderate amounts of caffeine will actually increase your short-term memory recall.
Although typically harmless in moderation, the problem arises when caffeine is taken in high or concentrated doses. Too much caffeine is known to cause dizziness, anxiety, headaches, and heart palpitations. Since the effects of caffeine generally remain in your system for up to six hours, if ingested late in the evening, caffeine may affect regular sleep patterns and lead to problematic conditions such as insomnia.
Like any drug, the amount of sensitivity someone has to caffeine will vary between individuals, and for those who consume caffeine regularly, the body will build up a natural tolerance in correlation to the amount ingested on a daily basis. However, this needs to be carefully considered if you find yourself suddenly drinking an increasing amount of coffee or tea – once your body develops a tolerance, you’ll need more to be able to feel the same results. In short, the more caffeine you regularly consume, the more your body will need to feel that same sense of alertness. That’s where the danger of addiction comes in!
Another effect of caffeine is its diuretic properties – namely, the more caffeine you take in, the more you’ll feel the need to urinate. Health experts recommend drinking three cups of water for every one cup of coffee, in order to counteract the dehydrating effects of the drug.
Consuming With Moderation
When taken in moderation, caffeine can actually be a beneficial part of your daily routine.
In 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that healthy adults should be able to safely consume single doses of caffeine of up to 200mg which is roughly the equivalent of 2-3 espressos or 4 cups of filter coffee. For regular consumption, EFSA concluded that adult consumers taking up to 400mg over 24 hours are not likely to have issues related to this consumption. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, should not exceed daily caffeine consumption of 200mg for the safety of the unborn child or breastfed infant.
The downside is that caffeine users who suddenly stop taking caffeine may actually experience symptoms of withdrawal: headaches, nausea, irritability, and in extreme cases, depression. Since caffeine is a drug, if you’re considering cutting back, be sure to do so incrementally.
As odd as it may seem that a cup or two of coffee, some tea, or a daily can of Coke may benefit your sense of well-being, the key is to be aware of what it is you’re putting into your body. Like any over-the-counter drug taken in moderation, caffeine can be a good thing! And knowing that can make your morning cup ‘o joe taste all the better.
Caffeine Effects on the Human Body
Coffee, cola and chocolate all share an important chemical component: caffeine. We hear many things about the effects of caffeine on the body. Is it good for you? Bad for you? How fast does the body absorb it and how long does it stay in it? It all depends on who you are, when and how frequently you ingest it and what you are doing afterwards. Government scientific studies show that caffeine will reduce boredom (of doing repetitive tasks for a long period of time) and increase alertness when the consumer is tired. On the other hand, caffeine will disturb one’s sleep and affect the central nervous system, resulting in increased anxiety. Let’s take a closer look.
When a person drinks coffee or cola, it will take between 15 and 45 minutes until the caffeine reaches its highest level in the bloodstream. Since the brain controls the body, it is the quantity of caffeine that gets to the brain that will determine how intense the effects will be on the body. Those effects will generally be at their peak within 30 to 60 minutes of ingestion and last for as long as there is caffeine in the blood. It takes on average 3 to 4 hours for a non-smoking adult to eliminate one-half of the consumed caffeine (caffeine half-life). Enzymes in the liver transform the caffeine and its waste products are eliminated through urine. However, in the case of a woman taking the pill, caffeine’s half-life reaches 13 hours. For a pregnant woman, it is 20 hours. Pregnant women will also secrete caffeine in their breast milk. For the baby drinking it, half-life of caffeine can be as long as 30 hours.
Caffeine effects appear enhanced when the body is in a less alert state, like when working at night. Once caffeine is absorbed, in small doses and by a healthy person, it will have beneficial effects on the body, such as increased alertness and reduced fatigue. It can also reduce boredom of a lengthy, repetitive task requiring a sustained attention. Physically, the heart beat, respiration, gastroenteric reflexes and stomach acid production are increased, and smooth muscles such as the bronchial muscle are relaxed.
For sensitive people, it has been shown that excessive caffeine intake may cause insomnia and increased anxiety. As a result, it may also reduce fine motor coordination. It also has to do with the consumer’s habits. Regular coffee drinkers, for example, have an increased tolerance for caffeine effects. Heavy users even grow accustomed to shorter periods of time for sleeping. On the physical side, coffee is known to relax the sphincter muscles at the top of the stomach, and so heartburn may occur, but it is another substance that caffeine that causes this. What caffeine does is increase the secretion of acid in the stomach, which can make an existing ulcer more painful. It also causes the heart to beat irregularly, but no evidence indicates that caffeine may play a part in heart disease developement.
Overall, when caffeine is consumed by a healthy person in normal doses, it has many positive effects on the body. A military study even shows that giving caffeine to soldiers at regular intervals will keep their level of physical performance over a sleepless night as high as it is in a non-fatigued state. So it is more than okay for healthy people to drink it daily and to use it occasionally for an extra kick when needed.