New research showing caffeine products, especially coffee, provide serious long-term consequences on our brains.
It is seen all the time: college students grabbing a coffee or Coke or Red Bull before class because they were up until four a.m. the night before cramming for a test and got no sleep. As students, we depend on caffeine like it is our lifeline- the source of our energy that we need when we have none. However, what if what we all saw as our savior on those mornings after no sleep actually was our secret enemy?
What is caffeine really doing to our brains and should you stop consuming it? The answer might be worth reading.
A study conducted by Bertil Fredholm, Karl Bättig, Janet Hólmen, Astrid Nehlind and Edwin Zvartau was published in Pharmacological Reviews in 1999. The study found that at high levels of caffeine in the body, the primary systems affected are the adenosine receptors.¹ Based on this finding, they looked in depth at what this meant for our brains and how, if at all, this affects our every day lives. There is a common misconception that we consume caffeine because it blocks typical chemical signals that function at these receptors. This is only true at high concentrations, where adenosine attaches at the receptors like a parking spot (Fredholm, 1999). However, with caffeine, chemicals in the drink instead attach at the receptors which make it harder for the adenosine to “park” in the spots. When adenosine does park at a receptor it makes you feel sleepy, so with less adenosine parked at receptors, the more awake you feel.
While from a surface level this sounds amazing because now you feel more awake to conquer the day, in reality much more is happening. With blocking these parking spots with chemicals, you are also blocking the normal passage of neurotransmitters. One such transmitter is dopamine. Dopamine has many functions affecting memory, behavior, cognition and a number of other things. During the Fredholm study in 1999, they found an increase in dopamine release leading to higher levels of dopamine than normal (Fredholm, 1999). These abnormal levels showed effects on brain function and behavior. One of the effects was an increase of dopamine in the striatum, a section of the brain that controls cognition, including decision-making and planning (Fredholm, 1999). Obviously, these are two extremely important skills that are needed throughout school. How can you expect to do well on a test, even if caffeine is keeping you awake, if you can’t decide or plan on how to take the test itself?
Another study focused on the psychological aspects of the abnormal levels during sub-maximal exercise in endurance-trained men. Their study found that consumption of caffeine before working out increased the men’s perceived exertion during the workout, decreased their heart rate and resulted in a significant decrease in blood lactate concentration (BLa)(Glaister, 2016). A decrease in BLa means that excess oxygen was created by the body than needed. Overall this means that your body is working harder than it actually needs to because it sees the task in front of you as more strenuous than it is in reality. So, why are we working our bodies harder than they really need to work? Just because of caffeine.
Not only do we turn to coffee as a pick-me-up, but also as a way to stay awake to pull all-nighters, which drastically affects our sleep pattern. In a research study conducted by Mary A Carkadon and Leila Tarokh that was published in Nutrition Reviews, it was found that there is a developmental decline in sleep EEG amplitude by 40-50% that occurs in adolescents. EEG amplitude are brain waves that are taken during one’s sleep, and the decline in amplitude from the average shows that adolescents have a large-scale change in brain structure. This change can largely be connected to consumption of caffeine. This is because, as students, our circadian timing system or sleep cycle, starts at a later time frame. Adolescents are known to go to bed much later than kids, however, they wake up at the same time. This lack of sleep is diluted with the consumption of caffeine (Carskadon, 2014). This shows that while that nice cup of coffee may help you study for your test until late at night or help you stay awake throughout the day, in reality that cup in changing the way your brain functions and perceives your surroundings sip by sip.
It is nice always having a warm cup of coffee to help you work hard, but, as these researchers all showed, coffee is drastically changing our brains for the worst. Just think about it, because all those cups add up.
If you drink a cup of coffee every day, like most college students, by then end of four years you have drunk 1000 cups of coffee.
Now factor in those all nighters, the days where one cup just wasn’t enough (even though for many this is every day), and the drinks that include caffeine but aren’t coffee. It’s probably a safe assumption to say that most of us students drink caffeine almost equivalent to the amount of water we drink. Coffee may have its short-lived benefits, which clearly make it worth it sometimes, but, as shown, it also has its fair share of long term consequences. I have to leave it up to you— but next time you start reaching for a cup of caffeine, maybe think twice because every cup adds up.
¹receptors in the brain control blood flow throughout the body and help control release of neurotransmitters
Carskadon Mary, Tarokh Leila. Developmental Changes in Sleep Biology and Potential Effects on Adolescent Behavior and Caffeine Use. Nutrition Reviews. 2014;72(1):60-64.
Fredholm Bertil, Bättig Karl, Holmén Janet, Nehlig Astrid, Zvartau Edwin. Actions of Caffeine in the Brain with Special Reference to Factors That Contribute to Its Widespread Use. Pharmacological Reviews. 1999;51(1):83-133.
Glaister Mark, Williams Benjamin Henley, Muniz-Pumares Daniel, Balsalobre-Fernández Carlos, Foley Paul. Psychological Responses to Submaximal Exercise in Endurance Trained Men. PLOS One. 2016; 11(8):1-15.