Can you imagine starting the day without a cup of coffee? Most people just cannot and will not. This is understandable since a cup of caffeine rich coffee gives us the energy boost, we need to start the day. I discovered my love for coffee in my late 20s and have been hooked ever since. But what exactly is caffeine, how does it work and why are some of us so addicted to it? Read on to find out more about caffeine, where it is found, how it is absorbed by the human body and its impact on our health and lifestyle.
Caffeine & Nature
Coffee plants have caffeine in order to protect themselves from predators and other plants, but also to attract pollinators. Caffeine is toxic to insects and smaller herbivores, preventing them from eating the plant. When coffee leaves fall on the ground, the caffeine is absorbed into the soil, preventing competing plants from growing nearby. The caffeine in coffee flowers also causes addiction in pollinating insects such as bees, helping to spread the cultivation of the plant.
Where does Caffeine come from: Natural and Synthetic Sources
Coffee is the most popular but not the only source of caffeine. Caffeine in its natural form can be found in over 60 varieties of plants (guarana, guayusa and yaupon holly plants); nuts such as the kola nut; beans (coffee beans, cacao etc.) and buds and tea leaves (bark of Yoco, Yerba mate etc.) and finally from various fruit and berries (guarana berries) as well.
While most caffeine is consumed in drinks made from these plants, beans fruit and nuts, Caffeine can also be synthetically produced in labs as a common artificial additive to packaged drinks, foods, and other products. Synthesized caffeine is commonly found in unexpected sources including gums, flavored waters, chocolates, juices, sodas. It may be added to beverages, alcohol, diet supplements and medications like pain-relieving analgesics and other OTC medication (for example, Advil and other headache medicines, painkillers and blood thinners). Synthetic caffeine is also often added to non-food products like makeup, face creams, and other cosmetics (2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source).
The difference between natural and synthetically produced caffeine is as follows:
The FDA states that the word ‘caffeine’ must be added to food labels when it has been artificially added in any production processes, whereas naturally-caffeinated items do not need such specifications.
A 2012 study also found that extracting caffeine from natural sources is more expensive than making caffeine synthetically.
Another difference between synthetic vs natural caffeine is their mildly different effects on the body. Food products with natural caffeine are more nutrient-rich, with essential health-promoting vitamins and minerals like potassium and magnesium. Foods with synthetic caffeine tend to have non-ideal additional components, such as too much-processed sugar, that are health-harming and have non-nutritive stimulants.
What is caffeine, why is it addictive and how does it work?
The medical name of caffeine, derived from its molecular structure, is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine. Caffeine is a bitter white powder chemically known as theine, mateine, guaranine, or methyltheobromine. Its chemical formula is C8 H10 N4 O2. This means it is made of 8 carbon atoms, 10 hydrogen atoms, 4 nitrogen atoms, and 2 oxygen atoms. These atoms are arranged in heterocyclic rings to form a purine alkaloid.
Caffeine is a mild stimulant that works by stimulating the central nervous system (CNS). It works by blocking the brain’s adenosine receptors, which prevent the neurotransmitter adenosine from binding to them. This tricks your brain into thinking it’s alert rather than tired or in need of rest.
Caffeine’s effects are milder than other stimulants, such as amphetamines and cocaine, but it does influence the same channels in the brain. This effect on the brain is one of the reasons caffeine is addictive. In fact, caffeine actually changes brain chemistry, increases dopamine levels, and causes blood vessels in the brain to constrict. By releasing adrenaline, you feel a boost of energy and alertness; however, once the effects wear off, feelings of fatigue and irritability may increase.
Caffeine is absorbed within 45 minutes after consuming, and peaks in the blood anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours. Caffeine in beverages such as coffee, tea, and soda are quickly absorbed in the gut and dissolves in both the body’s water and fat molecules. It is able to cross into the brain. Food or food components, such as fibers, in the gut can delay how quickly caffeine in the blood peaks. Therefore, drinking your morning coffee on an empty stomach might give you a quicker energy boost than if you drank it while eating breakfast.
Caffeine is broken down mainly in the liver. It can remain in the blood anywhere from 1.5 to 9.5 hours, depending on various factors. Smoking speeds up the breakdown of caffeine, whereas pregnancy and oral contraceptives can slow the breakdown. During the third trimester of pregnancy, caffeine can remain in the body for up to 15 hours.
Impact of Caffeine on Health
Caffeine works by stimulating the central nervous system (CNS), heart, muscles, and the centers that control blood pressure, creating both positive and negative effects. Caffeine can raise blood pressure, but may not have this effect in people who use it regularly.
Caffeine has other short-term effects on the body including reduced appetite, increased metabolism, nervousness, insomnia and stomach upsets. Long-term effects of caffeine consumption include a reduced risk of diseases, an increased risk of osteoporosis in women, and bladder problems.
Like most drugs, the effects of caffeine will vary from person to person and a person’s tolerance to caffeine can increase over time.
People often develop a “caffeine tolerance” when taken regularly, which can reduce its stimulant effects unless a higher amount is consumed.
Benefits of Caffeine
Caffeine has many health benefits including a reduced risk of diseases in human just like it prevents disease in coffee plants.
Caffeine can also improve athletic performance by increasing energy and delaying the onset of fatigue. By reducing appetite and increasing metabolism – the energy used for digestion – caffeine can help with weight loss.
Positive long-term effects of caffeine consumption include a decreased risk of suicide, a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and possibly an improved memory.
Caffeine is healthy as long as it’s consumed in the correct amounts. You can safely consume up to 400 mg of caffeine daily as a healthy adult. However, if you aren’t aware of exactly where caffeine is found, you may be unintentionally consuming too much caffeine, which can cause discomfort and anxiety-like symptoms. You can also use this daily caffeine calculator to know how much caffeinated drinks you can take.
Negative Effects of Caffeine
Because caffeine is addictive, there is a risk of drinking excess amounts of caffeinated beverages like soda and energy drinks because they are taken chilled and are easy to digest quickly in large quantities.
Negative short-term effects of caffeine include an increase in urine flow or even induce diarrhea, nervousness, headaches, confusion, stomach irritability, sleeping problems, increased blood pressure and heartburn.
Negative long-term effects of caffeine include issues during pregnancy, bladder instability, an increased risk of osteoporosis in women, and worsening of symptoms of anxiety and depression.
What is Caffeine Withdrawal?
Due to both short- and long-term negative effects of caffeine, you can imagine that many of us would have some point tried to do away with coffee or at the least reduce our daily intake consumption. Caffeine is a stimulant, and like any drug, there can be withdrawal symptoms after it’s discontinued. The symptoms are strongest within a few days after stopping caffeine, but tend to subside after about one week. Tapering the amount gradually may help to reduce side effects.
Those who consume caffeine regularly may also become accustomed to the release of dopamine (the “feel good” neurotransmitter) that caffeine induces – and losing that extra dopamine boost can feel like withdrawal as well. Caffeine withdrawal may cause short-term effects such as headaches, irritability, and muscle aches.
Substitutes for Caffeine
There is no coffee that is naturally free from caffeine. Decaffeinated coffee contains up to 97% less caffeine than regular coffee, but it is not completely caffeine-free. Decaf coffee contains around 5 mg caffeine per 6 oz cup, compared to regular coffee, which contains around 72 mg caffeine per 6 oz cup. Black tea has between 14 and 70 mg of caffeine, while green tea has between 24 and 45 mg of caffeine.
However, if you are looking for other caffeine drinks that will not make you jittery, try drinking matcha tea, black tea, yerba mate, kombucha, or masala tea.
Other Caffeine-free coffee alternatives worth considering include herbal teas without caffeine such as chamomile, peppermint, buckwheat and hibiscus, chicory coffee, barley coffee, lemon water, red tea, golden milk, hot cacao, roasted dandelion root and roasted fig. These are amazing coffee alternatives packed with vitamins and nutrients!
We hope this article has been useful to you. Now that you know more about Caffeine and how it works, you can confidently make a more informed decision about how much coffee your body needs. The idea is to not be dependent on caffeine but instead take advantage of it’s good health benefits by not being a slave to it but making caffeine work for you!!