Caffeine – is it a wonder drug, or a detriment to society? Are we all secretly junkies to the coffee overlords and their multibillion-dollar industry? Is coffee feeding the downfall of man? Is your coffee habit making you brainless and overweight?
Statements such as the above often litter the internet as headlines on countless clickbait blogs looking to score ad revenue from the shock factor that comes with the idea that coffee is slowly but surely killing us. And while there’s always a grain of truth in many of these pieces of word garbage, it’s important to remember that reality is often much more mundane than any form of sensationalist media would like you to believe. In that vein, keep this in mind: yes, caffeine does affect your body and mind. And yes, it can be dangerous. But no, a regular and normal caffeine habit is not very likely to negatively impact your health, and the benefits of regular coffee consumption likely heavily outweigh the negatives. Here are a couple ways caffeine affects you.
You Feel More Alert
This one is self-evident, but it helps to understand why caffeine keeps us awake. The exact mechanism behind how caffeine functions is similar to that of any other drug – after ingestion, caffeine (whether in its pure form or as part of a food or beverage) is absorbed through membranes in the small intestine and enters the bloodstream, where it passes the blood-brain barrier and interacts with our neurons.
Throughout the day, our body produces a neurotransmitter called adenosine. Like most neurotransmitters, this one is pretty important for a variety of reasons – it’s one of the chemicals the brain uses to trigger automatic functions – but its primary function, in relevance to caffeine, is the ability to make us drowsy. Adenosine is essential for the circadian rhythm because it basically helps us time our level of alertness throughout the day, before making us sleepy around nighttime.
Caffeine blocks the binding of adenosine to our brain cells, causing our cells to not register the neurotransmitter. This causes our nerve cells to speed up performance rather than slow down. Because adenosine also controls the dilation of blood vessels, our blood vessels begin to constrict slightly. At this point, the pituitary gland recognizes this increased level of alertness and neurological functioning and reasons that we’re in a situation that calls for an adrenaline kick. So, we get a jolt of adrenaline, causing our blood vessels to dilate, while our heart pumps faster, our breathing is improved, and our muscles react better and faster than before. It takes anywhere from 15-30 minutes for caffeine to kick in, at which point you stop feeling sleepy and your heart rate jumps.
It Does Affect the Heart
Some research says it’s bad for you, some research says it’s good for you – if both forms of research relied on the tried-and-true scientific method, why are the results different and how should they be interpreted? The tough part with a lot of studies is that it is difficult to control for all factors. People are individual and unique and react differently to certain substances regardless of their life experience or age, due to other factors such as genetics. Then there is the problem with correlation, as coffee drinking may be more frequent among people who suffer from heart disease, but only because their coffee habits are coupled with a tendency to smoke.
The effects of coffee on the heart are a ‘kick’, as noted above. Because caffeine blocks adenosine and can cause a release of adrenaline, our heart rate kicks up after coffee ingestion and we feel more alert and ready for physical action.
For many people, getting a bit of a rise out of the heart rate can be a good thing – after all, the heart is a muscle like any other, and not enough exercise causes it to atrophy. Anything that gets the heart beating harder and faster for a little while is likely going to protect it from long term health issues caused by a slow and weak heart. Remember to get your cardio in, kids.
However, this isn’t always a good thing. Some people have naturally weak hearts, and the equivalent of kicking them out of bed to go for an all-out sprint for two minutes isn’t going to do them any good. In fact, it’s likely to hurt them in the long-term. People with genetic heart problems can still enjoy coffee – after all, the jolt it gives isn’t exactly huge – but they shouldn’t push it. More than a moderate rate of coffee consumption (under 500mg of caffeine per day, according to one study) isn’t advised, because putting the heart under excess stress is just as bad as not doing anything at all.
It May Affect Anxiety
One of the more frustrating things about coffee and caffeine is that, like any other drug, it’s going to have a number of side effects that aren’t easily controllable and depend entirely on a long list of complicated factors heavily dependent on a person’s genes. That means that even if a million articles recommend coffee and a million articles say you shouldn’t touch it, it doesn’t really change that any recommendation not made specifically for you (based on factors that are difficult to test for) doesn’t matter. This is reflected in how coffee affects people with anxiety disorders.
For some, it decreases symptoms. For others, it makes them worse. The only way to know which side you fall on is to try it, document how drinking coffee for a month helps/doesn’t help, and then get off the coffee, wait for potential withdrawal symptoms to pass (headaches, normally), and compare your notes. Note that increases in anxiety aren’t the same as jitters. Caffeine jitters seem unrelated to anything else and are either boosted or nonexistent in different people, with some people swearing off all caffeine due to uncontrollable jitters while others barely notice them, only get jitters on very high doses, or don’t get jitters at all.
It Boosts Certain Medication
Pure caffeine is a component in some painkillers and other drugs, because the caffeine allows the drug to work much faster as it causes the blood vessels in the brain to constrict, and then dilate, first increasing blood pressure before increasing the heart rate and the speed with which the accompanying drug makes its way through your system.
Common medications paired with caffeine include NSAIDs, acetaminophen (paracetamol), orphenadrine, pyrilamine maleate, and opioids like codeine and hydrocodone. On its own, caffeine is used to treat apnea in premature births by promoting breathing and brain function. When mixed with painkillers, caffeine is used to treat severe colds, upper respiratory pain, migraines, tension headaches, and sinusitis (as well as some other forms of inflammation).
Coffee and the Gut
One negative aspect of coffee is the fact that it can seriously affect the acidity of your stomach, marginally increasing the risk of stomach and throat cancer due to frequent acid reflux. This isn’t a problem if you don’t get acid reflux from coffee consumption, but if you do, then significantly cut down on your caffeine intake. Not only are you at a marginally increased risk of cancer, but you’re at a significantly increased risk of ulcers and other similar health issues in the gut.
Coffee in Pregnancy
Bad news for pregnant coffee junkies – you’ll want to quit coffee during pregnancy. Because everything a mother ingests in large quantities makes its way through the placenta, there’s the danger of giving an unborn fetus some level of caffeine. While caffeine can help premature births survive, the regular exposure to caffeine in the womb may cause abnormal development in an unborn baby, including heart problems or other possible defects. 9 months is a long time, but there’s always herbal tea.
You Could Overdose (But Probably Not)
Yes, caffeine can kill you. And yes, you need a lot of it. Caffeine overdoses are pretty rare and well-documented, usually caused by a combination of pure caffeine (tablets/medication) and energy drinks. While energy drinks don’t actually have that much caffeine (black coffee has more), the pure caffeine will do you in. There’s only so much the body can handle before your system gives up on you and you die in a seizure.
It’s probably not a pretty way to go, seeing as how it’d be like putting your system into overdrive. Like its much more powerful relatives (cocaine and amphetamines), caffeine is a stimulant, which means that it speeds up the heart and other basic functions, like breathing and muscle control (versus depressants like alcohol and Xanax, which slow your body down).
However, unless you can very quickly ingest several liters of freshly-brewed black coffee (more than your stomach can handle) or willingly down a ton of caffeine pills, you’re unlikely to die from a caffeine overdose. Definitely don’t try it, though, unless you enjoy heart palpitations and delirium combined with bouts of vomiting.