Why Your Morning Coffee Might Not Be the Pick-Me-Up You Think It Is: The Science Behind Your Caffeine Buzz

From the daily drinkers of coffee to the finals week energy drink slammers, almost all of us have, at one point or another, relied on caffeinated beverages to keep us awake and stimulate our brains.

But… how does caffeine really effect our bodies and brains?

Come, galleons. Let’s find out.

***

Thursday, after having my first Monster in months, I spent three hours at work feeling super jittery and full of energy. I was wired.

Funny thing, though- that buzzed feeling we get from caffeine? Yeah… it’s not what we think it is. Because caffeine doesn’t actually get you wired.

Come again?

You heard me. Caffeine doesn’t stimulate the brain.

In order to understand what caffeine does instead of living up to our misguided ideas, we need to talk about the brain for a moment. More specifically, let’s talk about neurons, those ever-so-important cells in our brain that control everything we do.

Neurons are chatty, “connected” (I use this word for easement’s sake, but like air-kissing ladies, dendrites and axons [the two primary types of limbs on neurons] don’t quite touch) to as many as 100,000 other neurons. Not all connections are nonstop, but counting every possible neuron connection in the brain would take 3 million years. It’s crazy to think about how overwhelmingly complex and elegant something as small as your brain is, isn’t it?

Now, how do neurons communicate? As Diane Ackerman says in An Alchemy of Mind, “Neurons speak an elite pidgin neither chemical nor electrical but a lively buzz that blends the two, an electrochemical lingo all their own.” So, part of that communication is chemical. And what do we remember from chemistry? Chemical reactions often create byproducts. Our neurons are no different.

Enter adenosine.

Adenosine is one of those byproducts of neuron chatter. Various receptors controlled by your nervous system monitor the amount of adenosine in your system. When it reaches a certain point, your brain starts preparing for sleep or relaxation of some sort.

And here is where caffeine comes in. See, caffeine doesn’t work to “fire up” the brain. Instead, what it does is bind to those adenosine receptors, seeing as it happens to be a pretty decent adenosine impersonator.

Caffeine, you clever minx.

Now here’s the best part- when caffeine binds to those adenosine receptors, it doesn’t actually activate them. In effect, it blocks the body’s ability to monitor adenosine levels. As such, your nervous system doesn’t think there’s much adenosine in the body, so it doesn’t push you toward sleep.

That’s where your so-called “buzz” comes from- inhibiting the body from getting that “I-need-to-go-to-bed, everything-is-fuzzy-and-my-limbs-are-tired” feeling and forcing you to go to sleep.

At the same time, blocking these receptors (and that sleepy feeling) allows the body’s natural stimulants (dopamine and glutamate) to go nuts. Stephen Braun, author of Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine, likens it to “taking the chaperones out of a high school dance.”

[I mostly included that line because it made me giggle.]

***

Note that caffeine can only inhibit your adenosine receptors for so long. As Braun notes, you can “get wired only to the extent that your natural excitatory neurotransmitters support it.” So, even if you slam 27 energy drinks a day for six days straight (terrible idea, health-wise, by the by), you aren’t going to be able to give up sleep. It just doesn’t work that way. Sorry. I know that finals week really could use something that would do that.

***

Have you ever noticed that caffeine, like alcohol, seems to be something one can have a “tolerance” for? That different people are impacted differently by various doses of caffeine?

It’s true that caffeine effects can vary from person to person. Like alcohol, it can depend on a person’s size, genetic factors, or acquired tolerance.

Your body and brain can develop a tolerance to most drugs. This is why experienced drinkers can pound shots and be fine, while newbies have a beer and can’t stand up. It’s why smokers start out at one or two per day, but work their way up to having to smoke a pack or more a day just to get that same “buzz.” Caffeine is no different in that regard, though scientists aren’t quite sure exactly how the body develops a caffeine tolerance. Some think that, just like with other drugs, the body attempts to return to normal brain function when under “attack” by caffeine and creates more adenosine receptors. However, caffeine also seems to impact norepinephrine (which is like adrenaline) receptors, seratonin, and GABA receptors. In effect, it seems caffeine might cause the brain to change the way it regulates all excitable things- thus why you don’t get that same “buzz” off a small amount of caffeine anymore.

As a person’s caffeine addiction grows, they require more and more caffeine to get that same initial boost. However, it also means that they are susceptible to withdrawal. Caffeine has a half life of about 6 hours in the human body (this can vary, especially for women on oral contraceptives or those who are menstruating), so a person can start to feel caffeine withdrawal within 12 or so hours of their last cup o’ joe. The most common symptom is a headache and possibly fatigue.

Fun fact: The reason most people have a headache after coming out of  anesthesia administered for major surgery isn’t because of the anesthesia, but because they are suffering from caffeine withdrawal.

In about 10 days, though, a person can kick their caffeine addiction. Which is good to remember, because kicking said addiction is probably the best thing you can do for yourself.

Why?

Because then you can easily boost caffeine’s effects for you in the future!

Instead of drinking four cups of coffee every morning (which usually only serves to satisfy your addiction- it doesn’t really give you that energy boost anymore, as your tolerance is so high), cut it out of your routine. That way, when you really need that caffeine buzz to get you through an all-nighter or something, that pot of coffee or those energy drinks will actually have an effect on your body.

As a person who recently kicked her own caffeine habit (that’s right, I’ve even stopped regularly drinking Diet Coke), I can tell you that this is awesome. It’s hard at first, but only for a very short while (much easier than quitting smoking, let me tell you). After that, you just adjust. So last week, when I really needed a pick-me-up in the morning (as my body has been having a hard time adjusting to this new sleep schedule), I was able to drink a Monster and actually feel the effects.

As an aside to all you frequent migraine sufferers: It’s highly likely you are going to experience a bitch of a migraine during that period of caffeine withdrawal. I know I did. However, if you can get through it, you’re going to be better off in the long run. While you are still going to experience migraines at about the same frequency you did before, because your body is no longer dependent on caffeine, things like Excedrin actually work a hell of a lot better than they did when you were reliant on caffeine. Totally worth it, believe me.

***

It was 106º here today… That’s the kind of heat that even AC can’t combat effectively. It’s also the kind of heat that wears me out completely (the kind that makes you sweat doing the smallest tasks, while the sun feels like it’s trying to fry you like an egg). Therefore, I have to bid you adieu for the night, galleons.

I’ll leave you with this clip of Sheldon on caffeine:

ADDENDUM: I also have this spider bite (I’m assuming…) on my inner thigh that’s bright red and surrounded by a painful bruise. I’ve never had a bite do this before. I’m pretty sure I’m going to die. Also, it itches like mad, but I can’t scratch it in public, because going to town on one’s inner thigh isn’t terribly classy. Not even in hick towns (contrary to popular belief).

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