What is Caffeine and is it Really Healthy? Debate On…
What is caffeine and is it really healthy?
That question has been asked a trillion, gazillion times, yet I still don’t believe the debate is anywhere near settled. On one side you have the group of people who live off of coffee and other caffeinated beverages. Coffee, red bull, and other energy drinks are their way of staying alert, getting through the day, and being as productive as possible.
Over 80% of Americans drink at least one cup of coffee daily–it must be doing something magical.
On the other end you have the people who are adamantly against caffeine and swear that it raises heart rate, causes anxiety, and increases risk of insomnia? Who’s really right? Well, truthfully…neither…the answer–shockingly– falls somewhere in the middle.
What Is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a stimulant that occurs naturally in a variety of plants, including coffee beans, tea leaves, and cocoa beans. Caffeine’s function is tied directly to its ability to inhibit a substance in the body known as adenosine. Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that suppresses activity within the central nervous system (CNS).
When adenosine binds to adenosine receptors in the brain it causes nerve activity to slow, which ultimately causes the body to slow down and become drowsy. For every hour you’re awake, more and more adenosine gradually builds up in the bloodstream, you get progressively sleepier, and eventually you’ll pass out.
Remember: adenosine build-up = drowsiness
Drinking caffeine is like running a covert spy operation. In the body caffeine is able to impersonate adenosine and effectively trick nerve cells into thinking that it’s the latter. This TOTALLY throws the body off. Whenever you drink a caffeinated beverage the caffeine enters adenosine receptors, but instead of slowing down cellular activity like adenosine would do normally, caffeine actually 1) blocks the adenosine and 2) speeds up the CNS! It’s a double-whammy of boosted energy.
As a result, the CNS begins to function at a heightened level, the mind becomes more sharp and alert, and the body releases adrenaline (aka epinephrine). When the pituitary gland senses an abnormal level of cellular activity it assumes that an emergency is happening, which signals the “fight-or-flight” response. The body’s release of adrenaline increases heart rate, contracts blood vessels, and dilates airways, all of which work to increase blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the lungs (1).
Caffeine also releases dopamine. The release of dopamine stimulates the brain, enhances the feeling of pleasure, increases alertness, and jacks up problem solving ability.
What are Caffeine’s Benefits?
Research and studies have been done over and over to look at the effects of caffeine on cognitive and physical performance, as well as human health. There’s no doubt that caffeine has a TON of benefits, but it does have its drawbacks.
- Caffeine increases mental alertness, cognitive ability, pleasure, and problem solving capacity.
- Caffeine decreases headache pain. Caffeine constricts blood vessels in the brain, which can help stunt pain.
- Caffeine helps with weight loss. Caffeine boosts metabolism and creates a thermogenicThermogenesis or the thermic effect of food (TEF) describes the energy used by the body to consume (bite, chew, swallow) and process (digest, transport, metabolize, store, etc.) food.
Energy used = calories burned.
Processing protein requires the greatest energy expenditure, with estimates reaching as high as 30%. effect, which causes the body to burn extra calories.
- Caffeine breaks down stored fatty acids and releases them into the bloodstream for use as energy. Lower body fat, yes please.
- Caffeine opens up breathing tubes, which is really beneficial for asthma patients. Caffeine’s release of epinephrine is similar to what happens when someone gets injected by an epi-pen.
- Because adenosine is inhibited by caffeine, larger amounts of calcium are released into the muscles. Calcium is required for muscular contraction. More calcium = stronger contractions = increased physical power and muscular strength = muscle growth = yada yada yada, you get the point. Increased calcium release also improves speed, endurance, and acceleration.
- Consumption of caffeine has been shown to decrease the risk of Parkinson’s disease.
What are Caffeine’s Drawbacks?
- Caffeine can cause a temporary increase in blood pressure. Although this is a negative effect, research and studies have shown that drinking coffee daily doesn’t boost the risk of heart disease. In fact, a recent study done by Brooklyn College found that men who drank 4 cups of coffee per day had a 53% lower chance of developing heart disease than those who never drank coffee. This is most likely due to the high antioxidant content in coffee beans, but it’s still promising that caffeine consumption has been linked to positive heart health. I would only worry about the blood pressure increase if you have hypertension or are at high risk for hypertension/high blood pressure.
- Caffeine is a diuretic, which causes the body to lose water. This can lead to dehydration. If you drink caffeine make sure to drink plenty of fluids.
- Frequent caffeine consumption can lead to addiction and physiological dependency, which can cause cognitive haziness, decreased performance, and bad headaches if you ever stop using it. To be safe keep coffee consumption under 3 cups per day ( < 250 mg / day).
- Caffeine can cause excessive sweating and hyperactivity.
- Caffeine makes it hard to fall asleep. Limit it before bedtime.
- The flight-or-fight reaction releases adrenaline and cortisol. The release of these hormones causes the liver to release sugar into the blood, which signals the body to store body fat and can even lead to diabetes. In order to minimize this factor, try to avoid all caffeinated beverages that have added sugar. Coffee without sugar or low-carb/sugar energy drinks are the way to go. Also try to consume caffeinated beverages with a meal/snack.
Caffeine clearly offers a sweet collection of benefits…that’s why so many people drink coffee. It enhances cognitive and athletic performance, increases alertness, creates stronger muscular contractions, and even burns calories and body fat when you’re not exercising…kablam.
Although caffeine can produce side effects such as increased heart rate, dehydration, anxiety, and restlessness, these side effects can easily be negated by drinking a lot of water and drinking decaf coffee/tea around bed time. What’s even more promising is that research has shown that drinking coffee can have a positive impact on heart health.
Caffeine can and should be a part of any healthy diet, just remember the key word: moderation. If you remember moderation caffeine can be a staple in your every day routine.
How many cups of coffee per day is healthy?
2 cups per day is ideal, max out at 3.
Follow Lean It UP on Twitter for real-time fitness/nutrition tips, advice, info, and updates.
Wisegeek – What is Adrenaline?