Today we’re going to talk about caffeine. It’s the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world, most commonly consumed as coffee.
We’re all familiar with the effects of caffeine, but what exactly is caffeine? Why do plants produce it? What does it do to our bodies, and is it good for us? From a chemical perspective, caffeine can be described as both a methylxanthine and an alkaloid.
The first name refers to the shape and composition of the caffeine molecule. At the same time, alkaloids are a broader group of naturally occurring organic compounds defined by having at least one nitrogen atom. lkaloids have many functions and effects, but almost all are bitter in taste
Caffeine occurs naturally in more than 60 different plants, but more surprising than that is that those plants each develop different biochemical mechanisms and pathways to create caffeine. This phenomenon is known as convergent evolution.
Most people associate caffeine with coffee, and it is named for coffee, but it also occurs in tea, chocolate, cola nuts, grana seeds, and even the flowers of citrus plants.
Plants produce caffeine primarily as a pesticide. it deters insects from attacking or eating the plant in part with its bitter taste, but caffeine is also toxic to some herbivore insects
It does also have one super interesting function. Studies have shown that caffeine can improve the memory of bees.
It is helping them create a stronger association between the smell of a coffee flower and its sweet nectar.
This might be why caffeine exists in very low concentrations in the nectar of certain flowers, like the citrus flowers we mentioned before. It gives those plants a competitive advantage in the world of pollination.
Human consumption of caffeine likely starts back in 3000 bc with the consumption of tea. Tea gram for gram has more caffeine than coffee, but we use more coffee when making a cup.
The beginning of coffee consumption is a little bit harder to pinpoint. Still, by the middle of the 15th century, we’re pretty confident that coffee drinking had taken hold in Yemen and the surrounding areas.
With both tea and coffee, very early records show that people liked it for the stimulating properties of caffeine. Credit for the discovery of caffeine is not quite clear-cut.
When was coffee caffeine discovered?
In 1819 a german chemist named Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge isolated what he called Kafebase, a nearly pure caffeine extract.
He did this work, apparently at the suggestion of the famous writer John Wolfgang von Goethe.
Runge is also notable for having been the first to isolate Quinine and the invention of paper chromatography.
In 1821 it was discovered independently by French chemist Pierre Jean Robiquet, to whom caffeine’s discovery had traditionally historically been credited.
It was also discovered at the same time by two other french chemists working together. Pierre Joseph Peltier and Joseph Bienaimé Caventou.
Pierre was the first to use the word caffeine in print, though Robiquet was the first to isolate and describe the properties of pure caffeine.
In that pure form, caffeine is a white crystalline powder that has a pretty bitter taste. If you take a large enough dose, it’s toxic, but you start to understand its enduring popularity in lower doses if you look at how it affects humans.
Most people consume caffeine by drinking coffee, and it’s absorbed initially through the gastrointestinal tract. Then 30 to 60 minutes after consumption, that’s when it reaches peak concentrations in the body.
How does caffeine impact the body?
Now caffeine affects the body with three different mechanisms. Firstly caffeine blocks the receptors in the body for a compound called adenosine.
Under normal circumstances, adenosine triggers these receptors, and it produces a feeling of relaxation and even drowsiness for some people.
Caffeine prevents this from happening while also causing the body to increase the production of dopamine and noradrenaline. This is the mechanism behind most of the effects that we all experience with caffeine; this inhibition of adenosine
It happens at relatively low doses and gives us that feeling of wakefulness or alertness that we associate with a cup of coffee.
This mechanism might also explain the caffeine crash that many people experience with a sudden feeling of tiredness and exhaustion.
It might be that once the body metabolizes all of the caffeine, then the adenosine can finally trigger those receptors and make us feel tired and drowsy. Caffeine also causes calcium release inside of muscle cells, and it can prevent or slow its reuptake.
This increased availability of calcium increases the power output of the muscles, but it does require a pretty large dose to occur, around 500 milligrams for an average person.
Caffeine can inhibit what is called Phosphodiesterase. If you stop these enzymes working properly, you can cause the body to burn more fat, but for this to work, it requires a much larger dose than people would typically get from drinking a few cups of coffee in a day.
Does coffee improve memory?
Caffeine affects the central nervous system. Caffeine makes us feel more alert more awake and has been shown to improve memory. However, the beneficial effects of caffeine aren’t as clear-cut as we would like.
Several studies have shown that the improved mental clarity that we get when we drink a coffee in the morning can alleviate our withdrawal symptoms rather than improve our cognitive functions.
One positive impact is the increasing evidence for caffeine’s ability to act as both a treatment for some aspects of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and have some preventative properties.
Caffeine could be the last legal performance-enhancing drug, but it wasn’t always this way.
Can Olympic athletes have caffeine?
Between 1984 and 2004, caffeine was on the Olympic committee’s banned list. If they tested your urine and you had a higher concentration than 12 micrograms per milliliter, you were out.
And to hit that level, you could do it with just five to eight cups of coffee in the morning, and because people metabolized caffeine differently, this was ultimately an unfair thing to police. After 2004 it was off the band list.
As we talked about before, caffeine does affect the muscles. It does affect power output, but it does seem less effective with habitual uses of caffeine though it does impact the perception of exertion and fatigue.
How does caffeine affect sports performance?
For people using caffeine for sport, they’re typically dosing three to five milligrams per kilo of body weight. Not everyone has a positive experience with caffeine, and we do need to talk about that.
Symptoms like mild anxiety, jitteriness, insomnia, reduced coordination are all symptoms people can suffer from even mild caffeine consumption.
Is caffeine bad for anxiety and depression?
Caffeine can negatively affect anxiety disorders, and doses above 300 milligrams can worsen someone’s anxiety.
However, lower, more moderate doses have been shown to be associated with reduced symptoms of depression.
What are the side effects of caffeine withdrawal?
Consuming coffee regularly does leave you susceptible to experiencing caffeine withdrawal if you stop suddenly.
Most people can experience a big headache that can last a little while. They can become irritable, fatigued; some can get flu-like symptoms or struggle to concentrate.
Typically these symptoms will last for up to 24 hours though occasionally, it can go on for longer, and people have experienced caffeine withdrawal for up to three days.
How much caffeine exactly is considered healthy?
Recommendations are quite broad because people respond to and metabolize caffeine a little bit differently. But current guidelines are for an adult, it’s no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, and that’s 200 milligrams if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
Soft drinks, energy drinks, tea are all popular sources of caffeine, but coffee is by far the most popular.
With soft drinks and energy drinks, there is typically a fixed and known amount of caffeine in them.
You can look on the internet how much coffee is in a can of Coca-Cola; with coffee, you can’t.
A cup of coffee will have quite a dramatic variance in its caffeine content depending on a number of factors.
The coffee itself will play a role Arabica has half the caffeine content of Robusta, but the recipe or how it was brewed will all have an impact.
They’ve done tests and bought coffees from different cafes, and there’s been a pretty wide range reported anywhere from around 65 up to over 300 milligrams in a single cup.
Various governments and governing bodies have tried a few times to legislate coffee companies to have them tell you exactly how much caffeine is in your coffee-related product, but so far, that’s never happened; it’s always been successfully lobbied against.
How much caffeine is too much?
Excessive caffeine consumption can be quite unpleasant, and it can be fatal. To reach caffeine toxicity, you’d have to ingest around 10 grams of pure caffeine in a day.
To do that, you’d have to drink between 50 and 100 cups of coffee, so anyone rarely reaches that from drinking coffee.
More often, people have died from caffeine intoxication from consuming too many caffeine pills or other medications that may contain caffeine.
I think for those of us who drink and enjoy coffee all the time, it’s really important to understand a bit more about caffeine.
This is a psychoactive drug that we’re taking every single day. We should understand what it is and how it affects us. Now I know you’ll probably have questions about decaf and decaffeination, and I promise I’ll answer them all in a future article.
But for now, I’ll say thank you so much for reading this article, and I hope you have a great day.
Table Of Content
- Does coffee improve memory?
- How much caffeine is too much?
- How does caffeine impact the body?
- Can Olympic athletes have caffeine?
- When was coffee caffeine discovered?
- Is caffeine bad for anxiety and depression?
- How does caffeine affect sports performance?
- How much caffeine exactly is considered healthy?
- What are the side effects of caffeine withdrawal?