I admit it; I love coffee. I love the smell, the taste and the jolt it gives me. For many years, a cup or two of coffee was part of a morning ritual for me. It got me through grad school and beyond. But these days, coffee is more of an occasional treat, mainly because of the caffeine.
In North America, 80-90% of the population regularly consumes caffeine, making it the most widely used mood-altering drug. Although there are a number of sources of caffeine on the market today, for adults, coffee represents the most common source and soft drinks are at the top of the list for children.
It’s no surprise that we’re addicted to caffeine. Today, we live in a very “yang” society. Many of us are stressed out, wound up tight, multi-tasking and running on overdrive. To find balance, we naturally reach for “yin” producing substances, like caffeine, which is expansive and lightening.
To get an idea of just how much caffeine you may be consuming, refer to the table on this page. For example, a 6 oz., regular brewed cup of coffee contains ~100 mg of caffeine and a brewed cup of black tea can have 40 mg. Green tea will have slightly less. A 1.5 oz. serving of dark chocolate will have ~30 mg. Based on research from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association, 200 - 300 mg of caffeine per day is considered moderate consumption that is generally regarded as safe.
The trouble comes when we begin to rely too much on caffeine to get us through the day. To the cells in our brain (neurons), caffeine looks very much like the brain chemical adenosine, which binds to adenosine receptors and slows down the cell’s activity. It also causes blood vessels to dilate, which is believed to let in more oxygen during sleep. When caffeine binds; however, it prevents adenosine from binding but unlike adenosine, caffeine speeds up the cell’s activity, causing that caffeine buzz, which we all know can interfere with sleep. It also causes blood vessels to constrict (which can be a good thing if you have a headache).
The affects of caffeine don’t end in the brain. The increase in neuronal activity causes the pituitary gland to release hormones that instruct the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline, which puts you into fight or flight mode. One problem is that over time, this consistent, artificial stimulation can put a strain on the adrenal glands. In fact, if you’re having trouble getting off of caffeine, you may have nutritional deficiencies that are causing you to reach for artificial energy from caffeinated foods or beverages like coffee.
Back in the brain, similar to heroine and cocaine, caffeine also slows down the reabsorption of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, which explains why you may become addicted. This is also one of the reasons we love chocolate. When the caffeine wears off, however, you may experience fatigue and depression and the cycle begins again, reaching for caffeine to increase your energy and brighten your mood.
To minimize the negative effects of caffeine or to wean yourself off:
- limit coffee consumption to one or two cups early in the day;
- cut down on the amount of caffeine in each cup by drinking half regular and half decaf coffee;
- check in on your diet to see where you may be deficient in nutrients;
- slowly reduce the number of cups you drink and alternate them with glasses of water
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles