How Coffee Affects the Brain and Body
Do you have a love affair with coffee? This article explains how coffee affects the brain and body – and can aid in stress management.
Coffee: the Elixir of Life
Anyone who knows me knows I love coffee. Seriously. And I’m not alone. In fact, according to Fairtrade, an estimated 1.6 billion cups of coffee are brewed each day throughout the world. Millions of us start our day with it – and it’s a companion to countless conversations. The running gag for most hardcore coffee drinkers centers around not being able to function before that first cup.
In all seriousness, caffeine is a drug. Whether you are consuming caffeine in the form of tea, sodas, chocolate, or copious amounts of coffee, it has an effect on your brain and body. News flash: it also affects your stress and relaxation responses. But scientific research has provided us conflicting information on just how coffee affects the brain and body. Here, we tackle things we do know about the pros and cons of drinking your morning cup of coffee – or what some people refer to as, ‘the Elixir of Life.’
The Science of How Coffee Affects the Brain and Body
So, let’s say that you are drinking a cup of caffeinated coffee. The caffeine in the coffee is a stimulant, which triggers the brain and tricks it into releasing hormones – or chemical messengers – to all of the other cells in your body.
For example, caffeine stimulates the release of dopamine. Now, many people think that dopamine is a feel-good rewarding chemical. But it’s not that simple. When someone is about to experience pleasure – like that first sip of delicious freshly-roasted coffee – dopamine is released from the reward center in the brain, which signals the brain saying, ‘this is going to feel good. You are going to want to remember this, so you can do it again.’ In addition, studies have shown that caffeine consumed in moderation increases serotonin levels. Serotonin is sometimes referred to as the ‘happy chemical,’ because it’s so closely linked with feeling good and happiness.
Adrenaline and Norepinephrine
Caffeine also causes an increase in the production of two hormones: adrenaline, and norepinephrine. These hormones are your ‘fight or flight’ hormones, which increase your attention level and give the entire system a burst of extra energy to help you tackle stress head-on. For the most part, this is exactly the effect that coffee drinkers are looking for! That burst of energy to get them through their day.
Caffeine consumption also stimulates the release of cortisol – which is your primary stress hormone. And this can lead to many negative physical health consequences, from weight gain to heart disease to diabetes. Additionally, it can lead to many negative emotional health consequences, including moodiness, agitation, irritability.
Adenosine is a hormone that calms the body and plays a role in sleep facilitation. When adenosine binds to specific receptors in the brain, neural activity slows down, and you feel sleepy. However, caffeine binds to the same receptors as adenosine but doesn’t slow down neural activity. So, caffeine competes with adenosine for these receptor sites, causing fewer receptor sites to be available to adenosine and its natural ‘slowing down’ activity – and the neural activity ‘speeds up.’ The result: you feel more alert in the short term. But this can cause sleep problems over time.
I know you’re probably thinking – this is all great and informative and science-y, but what does this mean for ME, the coffee drinker?
The Good News About Coffee
Well, there’s good news! Some scientific research supports the idea that drinking coffee can potentially reduce emotional and physical stress. So not only can coffee keep us awake and alert, but it can affect the chemicals in your brain to fight off symptoms of stress.
For instance, a recent study showed that while caffeine usually blocks adenosine receptors from activating sleep processes, it also prevents the receptors from reacting to or causing a stress response, such as moodiness, memory problems, and increased susceptibility to depression.
Another study showed that women who consumed caffeinated coffee were less likely to become depressed than women who didn’t. Those researchers speculated that this was because caffeine encourages the brain to release more dopamine into the prefrontal cortex, which is a key part of the brain for mood regulation.
In addition, coffee is rich in polyphenols, which are a group of beneficial chemical compounds that can reduce blood pressure and improve cardiovascular disease.
Am I telling you that if you drink all the of the coffee that you will never stress out again, or have a heart attack? No. Further studies need to be conducted to really understand the relationship between stress and coffee consumption – but, there is promise.
The Not-So-Good News About Coffee
Having told you all this great news about drinking coffee, I need to mention that there is some not-so-good news. There can be detrimental effects when you drink coffee – most of which occur when you drink it in excess.
When you drink too much coffee, it can cause digestion issues, such as diarrhea, indigestion, and heartburn. Also, coffee can increase the urinary excretion of important minerals, including magnesium and potassium, which are important for regulating your physical and mental health. And since caffeine binds to adenosine receptors, which stops those sleep signals from being transmitted – it keeps us awake. Additionally, when you drink too much coffee, you can overstimulate your nervous system. Your adrenaline starts pumping – and this can raise your blood pressure, cause an irregular heart rate, and cause agitation. There are all sorts of issues if you don’t drink coffee in moderation.
And that’s the key: practice moderation.
But what exactly is moderation?
Experts believe that physical dependence and health risks associated with higher levels of caffeine can come with 32 ounces of coffee per day. So, it’s wise to limit your coffee consumption. In addition, you should cut off or limit your caffeine intake to ensure your sleep isn’t disrupted. I will say this – you can feel the effects of caffeine within a few minutes of consumption. But the amount of time it stays in your system varies greatly from person to person. For some people, it’s as little as two hours. For others, it can be 12 hours. If you go to bed around 10 or 11 pm, it might be best to stop drinking caffeine around 2. And you can adjust this accordingly if you have a different schedule or you do shift work. Finally, a good tip is to ingest your caffeine before exercise. Studies indicate that this can enhance your performance and you will feel less stressed throughout the day.
So tell me, how much coffee do you drink? Do you think you need to cut down? Or – is the only way you are going to stop drinking it is if somebody takes it out of your cold, dead hands? Comment below and let me know!