Exploring caffeine, specifically in the form of coffee, and why it “works” for some and is put to the test for others. Read on to find out if “where there is a will, there is a way” applies!
CAFFEINE OFTEN GETS A BAD RAP, BUT IS IT ALWAYS DESERVED?
While some known health risks lurk, select researchers are making rigorous attempts at proving caffeine’s health benefits, especially as it pertains to diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, type II diabetes and cancer.1, 5 Since caffeine is, by definition, a naturally occurring chemical stimulant, it is also a (legal) drug. A drug that, once extracted from the coffee bean, provides enough nutrients and antioxidants to – wait for it – outweigh that of fruits and vegetables combined!7 Even more impressive, it has been used in its original form by surgeons to stimulate the heart, and doctors as a diuretic in patients.1 But the average person uses it for something much less complex: energy.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE SCIENCE
Caffeine is naturally occurring in coffee, tea and chocolate. And, just like any drug, there are side effects. Meaning, there are risks involved with consuming it.
In the human body, caffeine mimics adenosine, a neurochemical that is responsible for making us sleepy.2 Under normal circumstances, special carriers (a.k.a. receptors) transport adenosine throughout the body to signal the brain to be tired. But when the imposter (caffeine) is introduced, assigned roles are confused because the adenosine receptors aren’t allowed to do their jobs properly.2 Caffeine attaches to the A1 receptor and blocks the adenosine molecules from traveling throughout the remainder of the body.2
With caffeine now acting as the defensive linemen, the quarterback (nervous system) never gets to throw the pass and sleep signals aren’t sent to the brain.2 Since this holding pattern can last up to several hours, the brain is tricked into thinking it’s more awake than it actually is and you get a jolt of energy. Why? Because the happy neurotransmitters like dopamine and glutamine2 get to play offense with no defense.
WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN
The energy crash occurs when the defensive linemen clock out, and the now built up adenosine is released. En masse. So you end up feeling worse than when you started this whole process because there is a rush equivalent to an all-out blitz happening in your brain.
However, we cannot rule foul play just yet as there are other factors at work here. That acquired taste and morning ritual also play roles, making coffee drinking not only addictive but a way of life for many. One popular meme proclaims “coffee is life!” Which makes it all a big a counterintuitive conundrum.
WHY DOESN’T CAFFEINE “WORK” FOR EVERYONE?
Enter the caffeine gene – CYP1A2.3 There are two versions of the caffeine gene, and we are each assigned either one or the other at birth; the rarer of the two is a rapid caffeine metabolizer, while its counterpart is the slow version.4 If you are the unlucky (or lucky depending how you choose to look at it) winner of the rapid metabolizer – CYP1A2-1A*1F – then you will likely find yourself drinking caffeine solely for pleasure and will have to find your energy sources elsewhere.4
This should not come as all bad news, though. Some people who are fast metabolizers claim that caffeine provides added focus, brain smarts and mood improvements.5 We call that winning because you can still have your coffee and drink it, too!
IS IT POSSIBLE TO DEVELOP A TOLERANCE TO CAFFEINE?
Nature versus nurture is a standard question mark for researchers. In this case, CYP1A2 can be influenced by outside factors. Various medications and food-drug interactions can either slow or activate the breakdown of caffeine, thus overriding the caffeine gene.4 Smoking is a common CYP1A2 activator, for example, which speeds the rate at which caffeine is metabolized.4 Our advice is to take your smoke break separately of your coffee break.
But what “they” don’t tell you is that our bodies develop a tolerance almost immediately after caffeine becomes a regular habit.6 How? Our bodies, smarter than smartphones, will detect the lack of adenosine and simply produce more of it.6 You now need more caffeine to fight against the increase in adenosine. If this ecosystem is going to last, your organically grown adenosine garden forces you to brew another pot. Talk about farm to table!
THE DELICIOUS, VICIOUS STIMULANT CYCLE CONTINUES
This all points to one thing: if your genes didn’t ruin it for you, your habits probably will. Or is that just an excuse to the connoisseur? You do have choices: hit the reset button (take a week off and start over), beat the science and drink more* of your liquid drug and/or take solace in knowing there are health benefits that might counteract the challenges of caffeine, psychologically at least. Balancing it all is an art form, but don’t shoot the messenger!
Whichever way you brew it, caffeine artists, and especially those of the coffee persuasion, are reportedly happy. That is, only if the clock starts after that first cup of joe and before the caffeine wears off.
Conclusion: caffeine “works” for all. It’s just that for some, it works in different, more creative ways than others. Time to put your excuses to rest; your beloved caffeine has passed the test!
*Health benefits apply only when consumed in moderation.