The Big Idea
Do you rely caffeine to get through the day; to wake up, keep focused and stay energised? For many, if not most of us, starting the day habitually includes boiling the kettle to make a cuppa or visiting our favourite coffee house to get our early caffeine induced pick-me-up of the day. Caffeine is a drug – a psychoactive stimulant that acts on the brain and the central nervous system (CNS).
Caffeine isn’t all bad – it can improve your memory, decrease your sense of fatigue and improve some aspects of your mental functioning. It can also make us feel good and increasingly it is a means of socially bonding. I mean us Brits probably owe much of our ability to face hardships to tea (if you don’t believe us just watch EastEnders). Tea, another classic source of caffeine, has itself of course has been a bitter sweet commodity to shape history and continents. Perhaps you don’t have much drama in your life; perhaps you feel that that’s all in the past. So you are still asking “what’s the big deal”?
Well, caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the World and the only one most of us would feel fairly comfortable giving to children. Second only to oil, it is also the most widely traded commodity across the planet. So are we really just a bunch of global drug users and pushers?
Other than the social objections there also some other sticking points to caffeine:
- Drinking caffeine tends induce the sensation of a burst of energy. This is in part due to the induction of “fight’ or “flight” hormones, gearing up our bodies with increased heart rate, blood flow and blood pressure. This can cause an general increase in anxiety and nervousness. Even if you are not anxious, pepping up your performance with caffeine can still make you jittery. So, reducing caffeine can help with managing anxiety!
- Studies show that daily coffee intake can alter your sleep cycle and circadian rhythm, which can cause restless sleep and daytime drowsiness. For many consuming caffeine less than 6 hours before going to bed can alter your sleep cycle!
- Caffeine can also affect the way your body absorbs nutrients, inhibiting the absorption of calcium, iron and B vitamins.
- It is also possible to overdose on caffeine – although this is practically pretty much impossible by drinking say coffee or tea – it has been attributed to the deaths of students using high caffeine content tablet stimulants.
Bottom line: cutting out, or reducing our, daily caffeine should make you healthier by being more in-sync with your natural body’s daily rhythms. In this #Tip we recommend the different ways to cut out or reduce your caffeine intake and how it actually benefits your brain and wellbeing.
Got it…What’s the Science
Caffeine chemically competes with adenosine receptors in our brain. Adenosine is produced when our cells use chemical energy called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) making adenosine diphosphate (ADP). These receptors tell our brain when we are feeling tired. Which makes sense as this is when our cognitive energy stores are being used up. remember we keep saying you only have a certain amount of brain energy in the day – well that’s literally true!
Our day is generally punctuated by routines that help determine our daily rhythm called circadian rhythms. The build up of adenosine helps our body to create a signal as a ‘sleep pressure’ that helps us know when we need to sleep. By blocking this signal with caffeine we dupe our brain into thinking that it has more energy reserves for the day than it actually has. In the matinee the build up of adenosine continues, masked, until our liver breaks down the caffeine to a point that ‘reveals’ the now backlog of adenosine. This is why we can suddenly ‘crash’ after cups of coffee or tea (caffeine). The problem is that to prevent these dips or crashes we resort to ever more caffeine. This can mean we are left needing far more sleep than we feel we need. It also interrupts the sleep pressure signal. Caffeine has a typical metabolic ‘half-life’ (time to reach half it’s amount) of about 5 hours. This can be much longer in some than others – between 1.5 and 9.5 hours. This metabolism is affected by both environmental, generic (inherited) and behavioural conditions. For instance those that smoke or take medication regularly tend to metabolise and clear caffeine more quickly than those that don’t – this is because their livers are already more active in detoxifying the body and the caffeine gets caught up with this. We certainly don’t advocate smoking to increase your caffeine tolerance by the way!
The real problem here, as we see it, is when we use caffeine to artificially manipulate our body’s natural circadian rhythms – especially when it comes to then expecting our body to just as easily naturally fall asleep. A problem with our modern lifestyles is that we are to certain extent conditioned and expect to be able to work out of these natural rhythms – at the drop of a switch – for instance being able to use artificial light and eat at any time means we can be less mindful of our connection with the rhythms of our planet and nature.
Caffeine is also a vasoconstrictor – an agent that narrows the walls of blood vessels. This raises blood pressure which can be of course be useful in short and intermittent bursts. Similar processes occur during our ‘fight or flight’ (and freeze or flock) responses that allow our bodies to react and perform. The problem of course is that ongoing higher blood pressure has health consequences of their own. As nutritionist Alyson Roux says “reducing caffeine intake has been found to reduce blood pressure, which decreases the risk of heart disease”. Reducing or stopping caffeine intake allows the vessels to open up back to normal levels. These sudden changes in blood flow can cause withdrawal headaches, as Amy Leighton shared with us on the Instagram Live. Curbing the caffeine habit means such headaches should subside – as indeed they did for her.
Unfortunately the habitual consumption of caffeine will alter your brain’s chemical makeup, similar to any other drug dependence! So the initial effects of withdrawal are similar too: mental fog, fatigue throbbing headaches, nausea, and/or flu-like symptoms. Caffeine withdrawal is even recognised as a mental disorder! So if you are keen to reduce or cut out caffeine then we strongly encourage you to do this gradually. Start with the cutting out or substituting the cuppa you have latest in the day – remember decaffeinated drinks still tend to have less, not no, caffeine in them – they can be a great way of starting to cut back though. Also remember that the pharmacological effects of caffeine are similar to other drugs in this group called methylxanthines that are found in various teas and chocolates.
It is possible to fatally overdose on caffeine but this would equate to about 70 cups of coffee in any one sitting. As unlikely as this is, unfortunately the increasing rise in use of popular of highly caffeinated drinks, the readily available ‘alert pills’ and the warped belief that being committed to work and working hard means less sleep, has meant this has actually happened.
The pharmacological effects of caffeine are similar to those of other methylxanthines (including those found in various teas and chocolates). These effects include mild central nervous system (CNS) stimulation and wakefulness, ability to sustain intellectual activity, and decreased reaction times. These advantages are regulated and limited in certain professions as they can leave users open to dependence, ‘crashes’ / slumps and ‘the jitters’ where thinking and behaviour is frenetic and disorganised. For instance regular contributor James Bushe (@bushepilot) has already told us, as a commercial pilot, of the limits of caffeine he can have in his system whilst flying (#Tip24 Sleeping In Sync).
Dr Matthew Walker, author of the fab book ‘Why We Sleep’, also reminds us of how caffeine not only interferes with our circadian rhythms and when we sleep, it also affects the quality of our deep sleep and sleep health as a whole. Deep sleep (so called ‘slow-wave sleep’ or stages 3 and 4 of our sleep cycles) are important in our bodies’ ability to heal and regenerate itself. Having caffeine can mean we are ageing our body prematurely. So although caffeine can have short term performance benefits during the day it also comes with other downsides or debts.
We suggest that working with our body’s circadian rhythm can actually do similar and in a more healthy and wholistic way. It also means that when you really need to use caffeine to help you can reap the benefits more easily and return to your natural rhythms more easily too.
Watch our #Tip33 on the Instagram Live Recording….
With special contributions from Emma Swanston and fab contributor, mindset and confidence coach Amy Leighton.
Jenny Star Lor outlines the things that happen to your body when you stop drinking caffeine
Pharmacology of Caffeine (chapter 2 from Caffeine for the Substainment of Mental Task Performance: Formulations for Military Operations)
Adenosine Metabolism, Immunity and Joint Health (2018) – research paper
Adenosine A1 and A2A Receptors in the Brain: Current Research and Their Role in Neurodegeneration (2017) – research paper
Caffeine and adenosine (2010) – research abstract
Caffeine is not necessarily all bad (13 health benefits of coffee magazine article)
Tiffany La Forge describes the health benefits of living caffeine-free
3 easy ways to cut down on caffeine (without going into withdrawal)
Spiders on Speed Get Weaving (NewScientist)
Spiders on Drugs (NewScientist article on the NASA study of drugs on web weaving).
Remember, second only to oil, caffeine is the most widely traded commodity in the World! So it does tend to crop up everywhere! Culturally it has become an accepted norm – but does it have to or should it?
There are some reported health benefits from caffeine, or at least coffee. But we suggest that these need to be held at the very least in balance with the downsides of a dependence (addiction). In our opinion less or near to no caffeine is the way to go.
But what are the benefits of going caffeine-free for you? Next time you go to make another coffee or grab another cup of tea, why not choose the decaf option? It may seem like an impossible task – but these benefits may change your mind!
Ultimately then gradually cutting down or out of caffeine will break your cycle of caffeine addiction and dependence.
We are certainly not the caffeine police! There is arguably a time and a place when you have to stay awake or alert. Just perhaps not all the time.
As always a last reminder: caffeine is a drug and we strongly encourage you to seek the advice of your doctor if you have any side effects from caffeine or reducing your caffeine consumption. There is a chance that your habitual caffeine intake has masked other medical conditions. So always take symptoms seriously and act promptly!
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