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Coffee, Caffeine, and You

 Sitting at a local café, a warm aroma fills the air. Within a few minutes, a steaming cup of coffee is placed in front of countless patrons throughout the morning hours. But what drives this global devotion to the humble coffee bean? Are we addicted to the rich flavor, is it the morning ritual, or something deeper, let’s say, biochemical? If you chose the latter, you win the prize (there actually isn’t a real prize, but you get the point)!

The Deceptive Energy Boost

How often have you heard someone say they need a cup of coffee to “wake up”? Too many times I’m sure, but in reality, what people are really in search of is that “jolt”, that shock me awake affect. The coffee is really nothing more than the delivery agent of its payload, caffeine. Caffeine as most are well aware, is responsible for the invigorating effects of coffee, otherwise known as coffee’s active stimulant.

But what is it about caffeine that keeps us coming back for more? Caffeine performs chemical magic by tricking your brain in a manner both fascinating but also somewhat duplicitous. Your brain naturally produces a neurotransmitter or brain chemical called adenosine. Adenosine’s main function? Slowing down brain activity and promoting sleep[1]. When caffeine enters your system, it blocks adenosine receptors, leading to an uptick in alertness, and wakefulness[2].

So, are we energizing our bodies or merely fooling them? In reality, caffeine doesn’t produce energy; it merely masks the sensation of fatigue.

 

Paying Back the Caffeine Debt

Like any loan, there's an interest to be paid. Every surge of alertness you feel after caffeine has borrowed from your body’s bank of energy, needs to be repaid as well. By stimulating the adrenal system, caffeine prompts the release of stress hormones like cortisol[3]. Over time, excessive caffeine consumption can strain the adrenals, leading to symptoms like fatigue and irritability, which coffee lovers might recognize as a "caffeine crash."

Moreover, repeated overstimulation can leave the adrenal system overworked and drained—a condition colloquially dubbed "adrenal fatigue" or adrenal burnout[4].

The True Coffee Break

Ever noticed your second cup doesn’t quite hit the same as the first? Or how over time you need an extra shot of espresso to achieve the same pick-me-up? This is due to the adaptability of the brain. As you consume caffeine regularly, your brain responds by producing more adenosine receptors, thus diminishing caffeine's effect[5].

To counteract this, consider abstaining from caffeine for a few days weekly. This gives your receptors a break, effectively “resetting” them, and restoring your sensitivity to caffeine[6].

The 3 PM Rule

Many coffee enthusiasts swear they can have an espresso after dinner and sleep soundly. In fact, I know many people myself. They might not be wrong—but they’re likely a rare exception. Caffeine has been show to increase cortisol levels[7], which can disrupt the natural circadian rhythm when consumed later in the day. Even if you don’t feel wide awake, caffeine can decrease the depth of sleep, making your rest less rejuvenating[8]. By the way, the one-third of our lives we spend sleeping, will dictate how we live the other two-thirds, so don’t screw around with your sleep.

Guarding Your Stress System

To buffer the impact coffee has on your stress system (adrenals), consider adding adaptogens to your wellness regimen. These are botanicals known to help the body counteract stress. My favourite 3 are:

  • Ashwagandha: This ancient herb can help reduce cortisol levels, combat symptoms of stress[9], and even help you sleep deeper.
  • Panax Ginseng: Revered in traditional Chinese medicine, it's known to boost energy, reduce fatigue, and combat the effects of stress[10].
  • Cordyceps: A unique mushroom that's been found to help fight fatigue, mitigate stress, and even boost energy[11].

 

In essence, while coffee offers a rich tapestry of flavors and cultural significance, it’s wise to understand and respect its effect on our biochemistry. Moderation and mindfulness, coupled with some herbal allies, can help you enjoy your brew without overtaxing your system.

 

 

[1] Fredholm, B. B., Bättig, K., Holmén, J., Nehlig, A., & Zvartau, E. E. (1999). Actions of caffeine in the brain with special reference to factors that contribute to its widespread use. Pharmacological reviews, 51(1), 83-133.
[2] Daly, J. W., & Fredholm, B. B. (1998). Caffeine—an atypical drug of dependence. Drug and alcohol dependence, 51(1-2), 199-206.
[3] Lovallo, W. R., Whitsett, T. L., Al’Absi, M., Sung, B. H., Vincent, A. S., & Wilson, M. F. (2005). Caffeine stimulation of cortisol secretion across the waking hours in relation to caffeine intake levels. Psychosomatic Medicine, 67(5), 734-739.
[4] Head, K. A., & Kelly, G. S. (2009). Nutrients and botanicals for treatment of stress: adrenal fatigue, neurotransmitter imbalance, anxiety, and restless sleep. Alternative medicine review, 14(2).
[5] Ribeiro, J. A., & Sebastião, A. M. (2010). Caffeine and adenosine. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 20(s1), S3-S15.
[6] Nehlig, A. (2018). Interindividual differences in caffeine metabolism and factors driving caffeine consumption. Pharmacological Reviews, 70(2), 384-411.
[7] Lane, J. D., Adcock, R. A., Williams, R. B., & Kuhn, C. M. (1990). Caffeine effects on cardiovascular and neuroendocrine responses to acute psychosocial stress and their relationship to level of habitual caffeine consumption. Psychosomatic Medicine, 52(3), 320-336.
[8] Drake, C., Roehrs, T., Shambroom, J., & Roth, T. (2013). Caffeine effects on sleep taken 0, 3, or 6 hours before going to bed. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 9(11), 1195-1200.
[9] Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 34(3), 255.
[10] Kim, H. J., Kim, P., & Shin, C. Y. (2013). A comprehensive review of the therapeutic and pharmacological effects of ginseng and ginsenosides in central nervous system. Journal of ginseng research, 37(1), 8-29.
[11] Kodama, N., Komuta, K., & Nanba, H. (2010). Can maitake MD-fraction aid cancer patients? Alternative medicine review, 15(2), 156-165.