Caffeine is the most consumed psychoactive substance in the world! But, what are the benefits & downsides of caffeine when it comes to our physical & mental health?
We drink an estimated 70 million cups of coffee in the UK every single day – but is this a good thing or bad thing when it comes to health?
In the past I used to use coffee for a pre-workout boost, or during long operations in the military. However, having given up caffeine a few years ago I have seen a dramatic improvement in maintaining a constant level of energy.
Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world and this amount has been growing steadily year on year worldwide. The growth is especially obvious when you look around at the number of big coffee chain branches (Starbucks, Costa etc.) now versus 10-15 years ago.
Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world.
Answering whether caffeine is good or bad for us is complicated and it is an area still under examination. But the following is my personal opinion on the subject (as well as stimulants in general), based on research and my own experience.
If you have been consuming stimulants on a regular basis for most of your adult life, you may be shocked at how good you feel when you eliminate them completely. The problem is, it actually takes a period of time after stopping to feel the full benefits.
For me, once you I had experienced the difference, I was never going to revert back to regularly drinking caffeine.
How Caffeine Works
Caffeine binds to Adenosine receptor sites in the brain. Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that calms brain activity, promotes sleep and suppresses arousal. When caffeine blocks the effect of adenosine it stops us feeling tired and increases brain activity.
I won’t dive too deep into the mechanism of action here, but in simplified terms the accelerated brain activity is detected by the body which in response releases dopamine and the so called “stress hormones” cortisol and adrenaline.
In a nutshell these hormones control the balance between prioritising repair and digestion versus priming the body to deal with an emergency. High levels of cortisol and adrenaline signal the body to prepare for action, to run or fight, at the expense of digesting food and repairing the body.
This “fight or flight” is a normal state in the body for short periods of time and on occasion. But, caffeine keeps the body in this state for hours as it is metabolised, and day after day if it is consumed daily. The headline here is that…
Caffeine does not provide energy, it creates stress.
The simple way to think about it is this:
There is no fuel substrate there to be used for energy, caffeine has no calories. It’s a drug that increases alertness through the mechanisms described above.
Caffeine does have some benefits. It improves performance on various physical measures and improves mental performance on repetitive, non intellectual tasks and it obviously increases alertness.
The problem is that the body rapidly gains a tolerance and that ever increasing doses are required to gain the desired effect.
There are various studies showing the benefits of coffee for different health markers so at first glance it would appear that coffee is beneficial for health. The problem is that these cherry pick one or two health markers from hundreds that are possible to measure.
They don’t take into account coffee’s effect on overall health. Also there is a huge financial bias to these studies taken as a whole because there is a vast amount of money available from the coffee industry (revenue of the coffee market in 2017 in the USA alone was $12.5 billion) to prove coffee is healthy, and very little to tell the other side of the story.
It is clear that coffee does have some specific health benefits, but in my opinion, weighed against the overall, the negatives just aren’t worth it.
When you don’t generally consume it, one very useful benefit of caffeine is for emergencies or as a boost when competing in a physical event. For example, the occasions you need to pull an all night-er for a work deadline, or on the day of a race.
But these should be the exception and not the rule.
You can think of the “energy” (remember it is stress not energy) provided by caffeine as Credit Card Energy.
What this means is it provides a boost on the day that you drink it, but you have to pay the bill with fatigue the next day. But you don’t just pay back the original amount, you pay interest on top of it because the caffeine caused essential maintenance and digestion tasks in the body to be downregulated and now these need to be caught up on too.
What tends to happen is people drink coffee again the next day to cover the bill from the previous day which quickly leads to a downwards spiral. We all know that friend or family member that literally cannot function without it!
They are basically using their credit card energy each day just to pay the debt from the past and are caught in a trap of never paying it off and always being exhausted.
Some of the common side effects of caffeine consumption are:
1. Uneven Balance Throughout The Day
This is something most people are familiar with, that rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. From periods of alertness to big slumps. Even when you are in great health and free of stimulants the body naturally has slight dips and troughs. But caffeine makes these far more exaggerated, which has an overall detrimental effect on mental clarity.
It is also a balancing act to find that perfect state, in between too little which leaves you thick headed, and too much which causes that jittery feeling.
2. Anxiety & Depression
Caffeine is a psychoactive drug that, according to research, can cause or enhance anxiety and other stress-related signs and symptoms in several ways.
Here are a few of the many ways that caffeine is linked to anxiety:
Caffeine increases stress hormones
People with existing anxiety in most cases are already carrying a burden of stress, and caffeine adds to the burden by increasing your blood levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine.
Caffeine affects neurotransmitter balance
Caffeine often gives us a desirable feeling- increased motivation, productivity, and brain power. This is a result of increasing brain chemicals dopamine and acetylcholine.
However, caffeine hinders the calming neurotransmitter GABA, which puts the brain activity on hold when needed. GABA is married to happiness and relaxation, so it’s no surprise that having a low GABA level can lead to anxiety and panic attacks.
Caffeine disturbs sleep
If your mind is stuck in a never-ending marathon at night time, caffeine can contribute to this problem. Caffeine-induced sleep disorder is actually a recognised psychiatric disorder.
Getting good sleep is essential to our brains since this is when metabolic debris and toxins are washed away and repaired into new brain cells. It’s important to keep in mind that any caffeine you consume, even 6 hours prior to bedtime can significantly disrupt your sleep.
Caffeine is linked to psychiatric disorders
Enough caffeine can create symptoms of anxiety in a healthy person that are indistinguishable from those experienced by anxiety disorder sufferers.
Caffeine has also been linked to mental disorders including anxiety, panic and depression, as well as sleep and eating disorders.
Caffeine can increase anxiety when taken with many medications
Caffeine is often consumed out of habit, making it an immense part of our daily life. That being said, it sometimes slips our mind that it’s a psychoactive drug and therefore, doesn’t mix well with other drugs.
Just as with other addictive substances, caffeine may become addictive. That’s because regular, sustained caffeine consumption can lead to changes in the chemistry of your brain.
Your brain cells may start to produce more adenosine receptors as a way to compensate for the ones blocked by caffeine. In turn, the higher amount of receptors requires you to consume a higher amount of caffeine to achieve the same “caffeine fix.” This explains how regular coffee drinkers build up a tolerance over time.
On the other hand, abruptly cutting off the caffeine supply suddenly leaves your brain with a lot of free receptors for adenosine to bind to. This can produce strong feelings of tiredness and is thought to be the main reason behind the caffeine withdrawal symptoms that often arise from going cold turkey.
While daily caffeine consumption creates a physical addiction, the act of regularly drinking coffee may promote a behavioral addiction. Unlike physical addiction, behavioral addiction may not be caused by the caffeine intake itself.
Rather, the social environment in which coffee is consumed and the feelings that accompany its consumption are what may encourage you to have another cup. That said, it’s unclear how large a role this behavioral aspect plays in caffeine addiction, and more research is needed.
Arguably, addictions vary in strength, but most share clinically meaningful symptoms, including:
- A persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use.
- Continued use despite harm.
- Characteristic withdrawal symptoms.
These symptoms are often used by clinicians to diagnose an addiction, and a recent review reports that a good proportion of caffeine users develop them. However, despite this, many experts are wary of officially labeling caffeine as an addictive substance.
First, addictive substances such as amphetamines, cocaine and nicotine are thought to stimulate the area of the brain linked to reward, motivation and addiction to a higher extent than caffeine does.
In addition, for most people, regular caffeine consumption poses little harm to themselves and society, which is less often the case with illegal drug use. What’s more, most consumers do not struggle to control their caffeine intake like many do with other addictive substances.
That’s because high doses of caffeine produce unpleasant sensations, such as trembling and jitteriness. This tends to discourage people from consuming more, rendering caffeine intake self-limiting.
When it comes to caffeine withdrawal, symptoms do not last as long and tend to be much milder than those linked to stronger addictions. They also generally do not require professional intervention or medication.
Currently, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognises caffeine withdrawal as a clinical condition, but has yet to classify caffeine addiction as a substance abuse disorder. On the other hand, the World Health Organization (WHO) does officially recognise caffeine dependence as a syndrome.
Giving up caffeine entirely can trigger a range of withdrawal effects. Suddenly, without the drug, the altered brain chemistry causes all sorts of problems, including the dreaded caffeine withdrawal headache.
Symptoms of withdrawal from caffeine include:
- Depressed mood
- Difficulty concentrating
Depending on the individual these symptoms my last anything from 24 hrs to 12 days. During that period, your brain will naturally decrease the number of adenosine receptors on each cell, responding to the sudden lack of caffeine ingestion.
Where To Go From Here
If you do wish to reduce your caffeine content be aware that this can trigger a range of withdrawal effects. Without the drug, the altered brain chemistry causes all sorts of problems, including the dreaded caffeine withdrawal headache.
Unless you drink very little (1-2 cups per day) or have started very recently we strongly recommend you taper off the amount you drink to avoid the withdrawal symptoms and the subsequent disruption to your life.
This is how we recommend you do it:
- Choose your ‘drug’ of choice, probably coffee for most people!
- 1. Get a big french press cafetiere and make exactly the same thing every day.
- 2. Weigh the coffee or use exactly the same level spoon amounts, no guesswork. Use the same brand and type.
- 3. Leave the water in for exactly the same amount of time.
- 4. Pour it into a thermos flask and this will be your allowance for the day. You can either use digital scales or a measuring jug for this.
- Start off with an amount that keeps you on a level peg, e.g. doesn’t give you a massive buzz but doesn’t make you feel rubbish because it is not strong enough.
- Sip the flask throughout the day, to help eliminate the peaks and crashes. So aim for the same amount per hour, but have your last drop by 4pm at the latest. If you can gradually bring this time down as well that will be beneficial.
- Over 10-14 days you then need to start reducing the amount. It doesn’t really matter how you do this, it can be at your pace. E.g. every day reduce the amount in the flask by 50ml or whatever.
You may feel a bit tired and miserable during this process (some people feel fine), but it will end and you will feel so much better so please persevere and don’t give up.
And it is also worth remembering that it may take up to several weeks for your system to reset, especially if you were a heavy caffeine consumer.
Caffeine is the most widely used mood-altering drug in the world. People see coffee, tea, and soft drinks simply as beverages rather than vehicles for a psychoactive drug.
For the majority of society caffeine is often consumed out of habit, making it an immense part of our daily life. And while the aroma, the taste, the routine, the warmth of the cup in your hands, and the feeling you get when you take your first sip in the morning may be cause for celebration, you inevitably have to pay the price for it.
As we now know caffeine works in two ways:
It prevents your brain cells from signaling that you’re tired.
It causes your body to release other natural stimulants and boosts their effects.
The end result of caffeine’s effect on the brain is feelings of alertness, well-being, concentration, self-confidence, sociability and motivation to work.
The problem with this is it masks the underlying state of your true health by keeping you going despite lack of energy and tiredness.
Added to which it may take you a week or two after removing stimulants to start seeing the benefits. And compounding this issue is the fact that you don’t know what you don’t know. This is similar to the fishbowl analogy.
The fish bowl analogy means that we are all immersed in a paradigm and reality, much like a fish in the water it swims in. A fish can’t distinguish itself from his water, just as most of us don’t distinguish ourselves from the reality we know.
That is until you pop out of your current fishbowl and experience the difference, which in this context is how you feel once free of caffeine.
The dilemma is that, as a species, we like to maintain a level of comfort within which we dislike change. But once you move past that one level of functioning you can shift your paradigm to an increased level of performance.
Caffeine is a huge part of our culture, and if you are having small doses early on in the day, against a backdrop of otherwise good health then it really is not going to do you a great deal of damage.
However, if you are genuinely interested in performing at your best, I would argue you are better off free from stimulants.
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