The numbers probably won’t surprise you. Roughly 62% of Americans drink coffee every day, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. While some may drink it for the taste, it’s primarily the effects of caffeine on the brain and body that make it so appealing. Of course, caffeine can be consumed in other ways, as well. Some people prefer to get their buzz from tea, energy drinks or even pure caffeine supplements. Regardless of the form, though, caffeine is caffeine, is caffeine.
Let me explain.
The Causes: Caffeine Defined
Whether in a natural state such as coffee or its synthetic form as caffeine anhydrous, the chemical structure and physiological effects of caffeine are the same. Classified as a nootropic, caffeine sensitizes neurons to provide mental stimulation.
You see, caffeine has a similar chemical structure to adenosine, a molecule found in the brain. Both molecules are water- and fat-soluble, which means they easily cross the blood-brain barrier. Ironically though, these two act against one another.
When adenosine binds to your brain’s receptors, it slows down nerve cell activity and causes you to feel sleepy. Caffeine, however, prevents this process from happening. Because it is so structurally similar, caffeine molecules can bind to adenosine receptors and block adenosine molecules from attaching. As a result, you do not become tired.
The Effects: Caffeine Benefits
Caffeine has many benefits on the body as a whole, including:
- Enhanced fat burning†
- Decreased perception of muscle and brain fatigue†
- Healthy cognitive function, reaction time and recall†
While these are all interesting caffeine benefits, the effects on the brain are, perhaps, most important. After all, everyone wants a clear-and-focused head, right?
For that reason, let’s dive a little deeper into caffeine’s brain benefits.
We’ve already talked about how caffeine molecules bind to the brain’s adenosine receptors, but there are a few other synergistic mechanisms that can come into play.
1. Increased catecholamine signaling – This is a pretty straightforward reaction. Caffeine consumption can directly signal adrenaline and dopamine in the brain, thereby elevating your mood and making you feel focused.
2. Genetic expression – In a rather unique way, caffeine can affect the genetic expression of proteins on your tongue. The most prominent of these proteins is known as CYP1A2, which is an enzyme that is mostly responsible for the metabolism of caffeine. In other words, your individual expression of this enzyme can dictate your body’s response to caffeine – ranging from non-responder to full-on jittery.
Recent studies demonstrated caffeine benefits with something as simple as mouth rinsing. Study subjects were given a solution containing 30 milligrams of caffeine and asked to swish it around their mouths before spitting it out. That quick interaction with the enzymes on their tongues was enough to produce a performance-based response. This goes to show that you don’t even need to fully digest caffeine to enjoy its benefits.
3. Sensory connection – Research has even shown that just thinking about java, seeing coffee-related images or smelling the fresh-brewed drink can activate reward centers in the brain and induce overall cognitive improvement.
How to Achieve the Optimal Effects of Caffeine on the Brain
One’s individual response isn’t the only deciding factor in how much coffee you should drink each day. If you’re trying to elicit certain effects of caffeine on the brain, pay attention to what the research has confirmed.
For optimal cognitive performance, the ideal range of caffeine is three to six milligrams per kilogram of body mass. Some researchers have experimented with nine and 10 milligrams, but the benefits seem to reach a ceiling around the six-milligram mark.
So, for a person weighing 140 pounds (approximately 64 kilograms), you would need to consume 192 to 384 milligrams of caffeine to reap the rewards. To put that in perspective, one cup of coffee provides about 100 milligrams of caffeine. (Side note: That number shifts slightly up and down, depending on the brewing technique and source of beans you use.) Therefore, three cups of coffee throughout the day would suffice.
In fact, the European Food Safety Authority suggests up to 400 milligrams of caffeine consumed throughout one day is a safe amount for healthy, non-pregnant adults. They specify that single doses up to 200 milligrams from all sources (yes, including chocolate) “do not raise safety concerns.”
As with anything, though, the more you take, the more your body adapts. Once you’ve pushed up your tolerance level, you’ll need a higher dose to enjoy the same caffeine benefits. While it seems cool to inhale those extra shots of espresso, an increased tolerance can be detrimental. You can become overstimulated if your dose is too high, plus your working memory can actually decline.
That’s not all. When an excessive caffeine intake becomes habit, your dopamine production is downregulated. This forces your body to establish a new baseline in order to maintain normal levels. Anything below that new baseline then results in symptoms of withdrawal.
Luckily, there is a solution. You don’t have to be overstimulated or experience withdrawals forever. To combat these caffeine effects, begin cycling your intake with a washout period of one to two weeks. This will actually help prevent your body from building a tolerance.
What’s your tolerance for caffeine? How much do you consume each day? Share in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
†These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.