What’s all the buzz about?
I admit; I’m one of the caffeine heads. And, on reflection, I’m good with this. On those chilly, dark winter days in particular; the thought of a big, steaming mug of ‘rocket fuel’ makes it that little bit easier to relinquish the cosy warmth of my duvet and drag myself out of bed. And I know I’m not alone! Being one of the most widely consumed natural products the planet has to offer us, caffeine is, for many people, part of a daily routine.
Definitely the most well known and swallowed sources of caffeine is coffee. Yes, caffeine has conquered the kitchens of nations worldwide and is enjoyed by millions, especially as a morning beverage. According to a report published in 2016, between us, here in the UK alone, we drink about 55 million cups of coffee a day! So it would seem we are a nation of caffeine consumers; guzzling this common compound to get our ‘hit’ to kick start the day.
Caffeine has connotations of being an energy booster, a reviver, sharpening the mind and generally helping us to feel more mentally alert and physically active. But it isn’t just a one trick pony, this caffeine stuff; there’s a lot more to this daily regular than meets the eye.
So as I sit here sipping my chosen ‘get-up-and-go’ caffeinated product, for research purposes of course, I’m going to enjoy sharing what I’ve discovered about this complex compound as I feel it slowly infiltrating and taking over my central autonomic nervous system.
Because this is basically what caffeine does; stimulates the organ system output of the central autonomic nervous system, such as increasing our heart rate. We feel this, physiologically, as an injection of energy; a physical and mental ‘buzz’ and cognitive alertness. Indeed, studies show that caffeine induces ‘feelings of energy and increased concentration and stamina.
Caffeine has received some negative press but there’s a lot about this compound that can be really beneficial (and that’s not just because it helps us to feel human again after a cheeky late one, burning the midnight oil on a school night). Caffeine is actually naturally full of goodness and has some interesting and beneficial health positives; and any potential negatives can generally be avoided when caffeine is consumed safely.
What exactly is caffeine? And what does it do to us?
Well, caffeine is an alkaloid compound which stimulates the central nervous system. It has a similar chemical structure to the DNA and RNA, adenine and guanine. Caffeine interacts with the central nervous system by blocking the chemical Adensoine, which is produced naturally to help the body to feel calm and relaxed, which is why caffeine stops us from feeling sleepy. Studies show that while caffeine blocks adensoine, it also stimulates the nervous system, by multiplying the production of specific chemicals in the brain called “neurotransmitters.” It’s actually the action of blocking the chemical adensoine which causes these other neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine to increase. The increased activity of these neurons is thought to help various aspects of the brain to operate better, such as reaction time, memory, energy levels, mood, alertness, attention span, observancy; and generally improving overall cognitive activity.
Potential Benefits of Caffeine
Studies show that consuming caffeine ‘in moderation’ can have some really useful positives:
Caffeine contains some important nutrients, including Manganese, Niacin, Magnesium, Riboflavin, Pantothenic Acid and Potassium.
It’s a rich source of antioxidants which can help protect the body from damage caused by free radicals.
Caffeine can be seen as Brain food. It can improve mental alertness and general cognitive function.
The antioxidant qualities of caffeine may help lessen the onset of Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Caffeine may help lessen physiological, age-related cognitive decline.
Caffeine is thought to be able to help combat certain types of cancer.
Caffeine may help prevent type 2 diabetes.
Caffeine may help prevent liver disease and cancer of the liver.
And according to a recent study, caffeine could help lessen the inflammation that’s linked to heart disease.
Caffeine can also help us to ‘feel better’. It can help to lift mood and have a positive effect on our physical ‘get up and go’.
Caffeine has been proven to enhance physical endurance.
Weight loss. Caffeine can act as an appetite suppressant. In addition to this caffeine can bring about the process of thermogenesis, which can help achieve weight loss. The process of thermogenesis increases the caloric output and in turn the energy expended by the body. This double whammy works together, by helping to reduce energy intake (because the body is consuming fewer calories) and increase energy expenditure, ie burn more calories, which can lead to weight loss.
Concentration/Study aid. Proven to have a positive effect on cognitive function, in particular memory, alertness, attention span and observancy.
Exercise and Sport – Energy supplement. Studies have shown that caffeine can enhance physical performance, increasing physical endurance.
Mood enhancer – alleviate Depression. According to several studies the use of caffeine could go some way towards combating depression and reducing the risk of developing depression.
Sources of Caffeine
Most of us tend to get our caffeine in the form of coffee or tea, but also the fizzy soft drinks; health drinks; and energy drinks market is dominated by caffeinated products. It’s also contained in the cosy mug of hot chocolate you enjoyed last night in your PJ’s by the fire. But this isn’t where it stops. Caffeine can crop up in some less likely places. Interestingly, caffeine is present naturally in about 60 species of plant; the most common being coffee beans, cocoa beans, tea leaves, and kola nuts. It also occurs naturally in guarana berries, yerba maté, guayusa, and the yaupon holly. Caffeine is also widely used in sweets and chewing gum; alcoholic drinks; pharmaceutical medication (common examples are pain relievers and cold/flu remedies) and also as an ingredient in dietary/health supplements as well as being a dietary supplement. Caffeine in its pure processed form makes a white crystalline powder.
How long does caffeine take to kick in?
This snappy stimulant can be felt physiologically within 10 minutes of consumption but it can take up to 45 minutes before entering our bloodstream fully.
How long does caffeine hang around for?
The time that it takes to eliminate half of the caffeine molecules in the body is known as half-life. Coffee can stick around in our system for a while and can vary considerably between individuals as a result of factors that include age, use of medication, liver function, pregnancy and the concentration of enzymes that metabolise caffeine. Half-life is also subject to significant changes due to the presence of certain hormones, but in healthy adults it ranges from around 4.9 to 6 hours.
When to take and when to avoid caffeine
- Caffeine and caffeine supplements should ideally be taken with food or after eating a meal. Caffeine should not be taken on an empty stomach, as this can lead to gastrointestinal upset.
- It’s always advisable to drink plenty of water and to ensure good levels of hydration throughout the day.
- Best consumed in the morning. Consuming caffeine late in the day can affect our ability to sleep. Sensitivity to caffeine will vary from person to person depending on metabolism and the amount of caffeine usually consumed.
- Those with high blood pressure and heart problems; children and the elderly may be more susceptible to the effects of caffeine; this should be taken into consideration.
- Medication: Caffeine interacts with certain medicines, effectively blocking or weakening the effects of the pharmaceutical drug or causing it to perform differently. It’s always advisable to check the instructions supplied with any medication you’re taking to see if the use of caffeine is tolerated.
- Pregnancy/Lactation: Though a personal choice, medical officials advise to either avoid caffeine or reduce caffeine intake when pregnant or breastfeeding.
The negative effects associated with caffeine need to be considered in weighing up the potential benefits but in most cases these issues can largely be avoided if we consume caffeine safely.
If you have a high sensitivity to caffeine; consume an excessive amount/too much caffeine; or fail to consume it safely; there can be associated side effects and potential problems. In these scenarios caffeine can cause issues such as irritability; nervousness; anxiety; insomnia; heart problems; headaches; and stomach problems/gastrointestinal upset.
Caffeine although not classed as an addictive drug, can cause mild physical dependence when consumed regularly and some people may experience mild caffeine withdrawal if consumption stops.
So how much caffeine are we getting?
Regular 8oz cup of soluble coffee:
30 – 90 (average 65 mg)
Regular 8oz cup of roast & ground coffee:
70 – 140 mg (average 95 mg)
30 ml espresso cup: 50 – 65 mg
Can of cola: 25 – 45 mg
Cup of tea: 25 – 45 mg
Regular 8oz cup of Decaffeinated coffee: about 3 mg
Energy drinks: between 212 – 570 mg per 100 g.
Regular 8oz Cup of Hot chocolate: about 5 mg.
These figures aren’t a guide to live by; in fact, the caffeine content can vary considerably, for example, when looking at coffee, dependent on factors such as the type of coffee bean, the type of roast, and naturally the amount of coffee used.
Mindful and Measured
‘In moderation’ and consumed mindfully, caffeine can have some useful functions, as we’ve seen, and the possible health and cognitive benefits definitely make me feel good about my personal caffeine intake. The American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs describes ‘a moderate amount’ of caffeine to be roughly between 235mg and 400 mg per day. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) advises that ‘caffeine intakes from all sources up to 400 mg per day and single doses of 200mg do not raise safety concerns for adults in the general population.’ As with so much in life; it’s all about the balance. Overdoing caffeine can have its drawbacks; both short term and with longevity. It’s clear, when taken with our ‘smart head’ on; caffeine can be remarkably good for us. Furthermore, caffeine intake has been linked to a longer life! By simply being in the know about our own bodies, sensible limits and safe consumption we can avoid the potential negatives of caffeine and embrace this clever compound as a really useful tool.
Article written by Sophie Spooner.