Coffee doesn’t really make you more awake. This is why

Science and Health

Coffee for most people isn’t just a drink that we enjoy several times a day. It’s a way of life and it’s very difficult to think about managing our days and to-do lists without it. 

The main reason we drink coffee is to feel more alert and vital, but does it really work for us? Bottom line, the answer is yes, but it comes with a big asterisk that’s important to think about.

We all know that there’s one component in coffee that turns it from just a bitter, mediocre drink into one that makes us feel like our lives depend on it. Caffeine is a stimulant with many virtues, but how much do you really know about its effect on the brain and nervous system? 

To understand this effect in depth, learn about adenosine, a chemical compound that’s an essential part of the mechanism which regulates sleep and wake cycles.

When the brain and other body systems are working hard, adenosine levels rise as this chemical is secreted inside the various cells as part of the energy production process. The more energy the cells produce, the more adenosine there is in the body, which binds to unique receptors that signal to the cells that it’s time to slow down.

Coffee with milk (credit: INGIMAGE)

This is, of course, an essential mechanism that helps to understand when to stop and rest. When we listen to the body and rest after strenuous activity, adenosine levels decrease and we feel more alert. 

This is good in theory, but people are busy so we can’t always let go and relax. So, when fatigue increases, it’s natural to drink coffee and benefit from the caffeine. Its chemical composition, which is very similar to adenosine, allows it to bind to those receptors and prevents adenosine from binding to them and causing the feeling of fatigue.

Everything that goes up must come down

Everyone knows Newton’s law, which states that everything that goes up must come down. As with everything in life, there’s a catch in the deal we make with caffeine and each cup of coffee that is worth dwelling on. 

Some researchers call it a loan. That is, caffeine doesn’t really increase the level of energy, but rather lends it to us with interest that we aren’t aware of.

Researchers discovered that when caffeine binds to the adenosine receptors, the levels of it in the body only keep increasing as the component continues to accumulate and wait to be used.

As the caffeine breaks down and is released from the receptors, the accumulated adenosine eventually reaches its destination, causing increased and much more powerful fatigue.

A similar mechanism, by the way, also happens with the consumption of more powerful medications or illegal drugs, such as Ritalin, or, in contrast, cocaine. In such a situation, there are only two ways to solve the problem: consume more of these chemicals, or simply listen to the body and give it the rest it asks for.

Not to avoid, but to schedule more correctly

This article’s goal isn’t to convince you to give up the drink you love so much, but to understand it better. Obviously, coffee has many health benefits. Various studies have shown that coffee in the right doses may improve health in several ways and even extend life expectancy.

To allow coffee to benefit you, without causing unnecessary harm, think about the amount you drink and at what time. One study found, for example, that if you drink coffee later in the day rather than right after waking up, it can enhance its positive effect. 

When we wake up in the morning, the body naturally releases hormones like cortisol which are meant to charge us with energy. So if you wait to drink the first cup when the energies decrease, its effect will be more beneficial.

Also, it’s important to understand that the body develops resistance to caffeine over time. So if you feel that coffee isn’t working for you lately, take a break for two weeks instead of drinking more. 

Of course, avoid drinking coffee in the evening, at least five hours before bed to avoid sleep problems that will only intensify fatigue in the morning and repeatedly feed this destructive cycle.

To prolong the effect of caffeine, drink coffee after you eat and not before it. Studies haven’t been able to prove that caffeine causes harm if consumed on an empty stomach, but when drunk after a meal, it’s absorbed and broken down more slowly and thus its effect can last longer.

Finally, remember that caffeine can really help maintain alertness, but like other chemicals that affect the brain and nervous system, it’s not a magic drug and its effects are limited. 

When you learn how to use it intelligently, you can use it when you really need it without intensifying destructive patterns of dependence and cumulative fatigue.