Every day, billions of us rely on caffeine, whether it’s to get through an afternoon slump, a long night shift, or to wake up in the morning.
In fact, caffeine is one of the world’s most commonly used ingredients.
Caffeine is a topic that is discussed often — from its various health benefits to its negative effects on anxiety and sleep — but let’s look a little deeper and explore what caffeine is, how it works, the great misconceptions about this natural stimulant, and more.
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What Is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a stimulant naturally found in various places — most commonly in coffee, tea, and cacao plants.
Its stimulant effect works by stimulating the central nervous system and brain to prevent the onset of tiredness and help you stay alert.
We’ve been consuming caffeine for thousands of years; the first instance of caffeinated tea dates back to 2737 B.C. Coffee and its effects were discovered years later.
Then, in the late 1800s, caffeinated sodas began hitting the market, and energy drinks weren’t far behind.
The same source listed above states that approximately 80% of the global population consumes caffeine each day, and 90% of adults in North America regularly consume caffeinated products.
How Caffeine Works
Before we get into the misconceptions about caffeine, it’s important to look into how it works. Once ingested, caffeine quickly absorbs into our bloodstream from our gut.
From there, the caffeine travels to the liver, where it’s broken down into different compounds that affect various organ functions. However, caffeine primarily affects the brain.
Caffeine works by blocking adenosine, which is responsible for making you feel tired and relaxing your brain.
Typically, your adenosine levels build up gradually during the day, making you more tired and ready for sleep. However, caffeine helps you stay awake because it connects to your brain’s adenosine receptors without activating them. It blocks the adenosine’s effects, leading to reduced tiredness.
In addition, caffeine can also increase your blood adrenaline levels, increasing your brain’s neurotransmitter activity of norepinephrine and dopamine. This combination stimulates the brain, promoting focus and alertness. And because caffeine affects the brain, it’s known as a psychoactive drug.
Caffeine also tends to exert its effects fairly quickly after consumption. For example, the caffeine from drinking a cup of coffee can reach your bloodstream in 20 minutes and is entirely effective after about an hour.
The Misconception of Caffeine, Coffee, and Energy
For time immemorial, caffeine via coffee has fueled, energized, and helped human beings drag themselves out of bed and get through their day. Coffee has been a tremendous asset to people for centuries, but it does not come without a downside. As many coffee-lovers know all too well, the short burst of energy it provides is often met with a wired, jittery feeling followed by a sudden crash. In addition, the discovery of acrylamides and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in coffee roasted at high heat leaves us wondering if there may be a better way to utilize the benefits of caffeine while avoiding these side effects and toxic byproducts.
To truly get the most out of caffeine, we first must come to terms with a critical reality. Caffeine is NOT energy. It is NOT fuel. Instead, caffeine is a stimulant that binds to adenosine receptors in the brain and speeds up neural activity. To respond optimally to this stimulus, it is crucial to supply low-glycemic fuels that prolong the absorption of caffeine without outstripping the body’s fuel supply before caffeine levels drop off.
By the same principle, it is not surprising that studies suggest having that first cup of coffee after breakfast rather than before eating anything. A recent study from the University of Bath supports these findings: “strong black coffee consumed before breakfast substantially increased the blood glucose response to breakfast by around 50%.”
According to Professor James Betts, Co-Director of the Centre for Nutrition, Exercise, and Metabolism at the University of Bath, who oversaw the work, explains: “Put, our blood sugar control is impaired when the first thing our bodies come into contact with is coffee, especially after a night of disrupted sleep. We might improve this by eating first and then drinking coffee later if we still feel we need it. Knowing this can have important health benefits for us all.”
Coffee vs. Other Caffeine Sources
Recognizing the limitations of coffee also provides some insight into the shortcomings of other caffeinated beverages. The majority of energy drinks, for example, have either zero calories or high levels of simple carbohydrates such as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The caffeine will outstrip its fuel supply with no calories, and the brain essentially sputters out. With HFCS, the body experiences a glycemic spike which causes insulin resistance in the brain and gums up its ability to respond. To support caffeine properly, the next generation of functional beverages will seek to include a protein source such as collagen, a source of keto-friendly fatty acids like medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), and potent antioxidants while providing a low-glycemic load of less than 10g of sugar carbs. This, in essence, is Breinfuel.
Caffeine is a fantastic molecule that must be used intelligently for the best results. It can improve cognitive function and short-term memory and help us feel more alert and energized. By learning how to support it properly, we can create an evolved paradigm for caffeinated beverages and fuel our society better.
Learn how Breinfuel — one of the best sources of natural caffeine available — is fueling the caffeine revolution.
Proven Benefits of Caffeine
Caffeine can provide various health benefits. The most well-researched include:
Improving Brain Function and Mood
As we mentioned, caffeine blocks adenosine, causing an increase in other molecules like norepinephrine and dopamine. This change in your brain messaging can help benefit your brain function and mood.
In a previously-mentioned study, participants that ingested caffeine in amounts between 37.5 and 450 mg reported an improvement in their alertness, reaction time, and short-term memory.
In addition, another study found that drinking 200 to 300 mg of caffeine lowered the risk of suicide. Another review shows that regularly consuming caffeine comes with a 13% reduction in the risk of depression.
However, more isn’t always better when using caffeine to improve your mood. One study found that drinking a second cup of coffee provided no additional benefits within eight hours of drinking the first cup.
Finally, various studies over the years have shown that drinking 3-5 cups of coffee or 3+ cups of tea daily may reduce the risk of certain brain diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Helping Burn Fat and Boost Metabolism
Taking a practical look, consuming 300 mg of caffeine each day can help you burn an extra 79 calories daily with no extra effort. While that might seem like few calories, it could help prevent gaining over two pounds each year.
Enhancing Exercise Performance
Caffeine can help your exercise routines, too, by helping you use more fat as fuel. That effect is beneficial because it helps the glucose your muscles store last longer, delaying how long it takes for your muscles to reach exhaustion.
In addition, caffeine may help increase your fatigue tolerance and improve your muscle contractions.
Some researchers discovered that, by taking caffeine at a dose of 2.3 mg per pound of body weight, participants in the study had improved endurance performance by 5%. However, lower doses can also provide similar benefits. What’s more, these studies also report benefits for high-intensity workouts, team sports, and resistance exercises.
Finally, caffeine can also reduce a person’s perceived exertion during a workout, making their exercises feel easier.
Protecting Against Diabetes and Heart Disease
One common misconception about caffeine is that it raises someone’s risk of heart disease — however, evidence shows the opposite to be true.
In fact, men and women that drink anywhere between one and four cups of coffee (100 to 400 mg) daily have a significantly lower risk of heart disease.
An additional study shows that two to four cups of green tea or coffee daily can also lead to a lower stroke risk — by up to 20%.
However, you should keep in mind that caffeine can slightly raise your blood pressure. It’s typically a small effect that tends to fade for most people who consume coffee and caffeine regularly.
In addition, caffeine may play a role in protecting against diabetes. One review noted that people who drink caffeine and coffee have a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 30%.
That same review found that your risk drops by up to 14% for every 200 mg of caffeine you consume daily. And it’s not only the caffeine in coffee that can help prevent diabetes — researchers also found that decaffeinated coffee could reduce someone’s risk of diabetes by up to 21%.
All in all, caffeine isn’t unhealthy as once believed. In fact, evidence like the studies we discussed above shows that it may be the opposite.