Caffeine: Friend or Foe?
by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. updated 10/2020
Caffeine can be a touchy topic. The dividing line is strong—some people are slaves to their morning cup of coffee, whereas others shun caffeine altogether. It turns out that caffeine is neither good nor bad. It has an upside and a downside and it’s up to you to decide where you fall on the caffeine spectrum.
What Exactly is Caffeine?
Caffeine is a natural component of chocolate, coffee, and tea. When isolated in its pure form, caffeine is a white crystalline powder that tastes very bitter. Caffeine is a mild central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that is sometimes referred to as a drug due to its addictive qualities.
Though caffeine occurs naturally in coffee, tea, and chocolate, it is often added to sodas, energy drinks, diet pills, and some over-the-counter pain relievers and medicines. More than 90 percent of Americans consume some form of caffeine every single day.
The Effects of Caffeine
Caffeine has some distinct and immediate effects on the body. Only a few minutes after ingesting caffeine, you’ll feel the effects of the stimulant. Caffeine has a half-life of 4 to 6 hours in the body—meaning it stays in your system for several hours.
Once in your system, caffeine directly impacts some hormonal functions:
- It provides a surge of adrenaline, which results in a temporary boost that can be followed by a crash and ensuing fatigue.
- It increases the stress hormone, cortisol, which can lead to mood swings and increased hunger. Chronic elevation of cortisol levels has been linked to weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes.
- It increases dopamine levels, which can leave you feeling good—for a while. Once dopamine starts to plummet again, you may feel down.
- It inhibits the absorption of adenosine, a hormone that has a calming effect on the body. This is good if you want to stay alert; however, it can eventually interfere with sleep.
The Pros and Cons of Caffeine
Caffeine is not necessarily good or bad—it’s simply a substance that can have negative or positive effects on our body, depending on how we use it.
Let’s start with the benefits. Caffeine can:
- Increase alertness and boost concentration: Because caffeine is a stimulant, it can provide a boost.
- Treat headaches: Caffeine has been shown to relieve headaches. In fact, some over-the-counter pain relievers include caffeine.
- Improve athletic performance: One or two cups of coffee one hour prior to a workout may allow you to go faster, stronger, and longer. Furthermore, it may even promote fat burning during exercise.
There is, however, a downside. On the negative side, caffeine can:
- Interfere with sleep: Caffeine can inhibit adenosine and keep you awake longer. It will shorten the overall amount of sleep you get, which can affect your overall health and your level of alertness the next day.
- Lead to weight gain: Chronically elevated cortisol levels lead to stronger cravings for fat and carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain.
- Cause the jitters: For some people, caffeine is enough of a stimulant to leave them feeling jittery and anxious.
- Become a habit: Caffeine is highly habituating. Once your body begins to rely on it, you may find you need it to feel “normal.” Quitting caffeine can result in side effects such as headaches and moodiness.
Caffeine in Moderation
The final verdict on caffeine is that it’s okay—in moderation. Individuals who are very sensitive to stimulants are probably better off avoiding caffeine altogether; however, others can enjoy caffeine in moderation. Moderation means the equivalent of about three cups of coffee per day; any more than that and you’re likely to notice negative effects. The best advice:
- Moderation: Don’t exceed the equivalent of three or four cups of coffee per day. This will help you reap the benefits without suffering the consequences.
- Timing: Limit caffeine intake after 2 p.m. Since caffeine can stay in your system for up to eight hours, this will prevent it from disrupting your sleep.
- Exercise: Consume caffeine before exercise to enhance performance, improve endurance, and burn fat.