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Caffeine: Why Society Depends on Coffee

By: Carolyn Mish, Contributing Writer

A hot cup of coffee is exactly what some people reach for to escape groggy mornings: in fact, 62% of Americans drink coffee daily. In pop culture, coffee shops set the stage for meet-cutes and friendships alike. But what really drives a cultural reverence for and dependency on caffeine? What’s so special about it?

Caffeine is a stimulant, particularly impacting the central nervous system. The central nervous system sends messages from the brain to the body. To accomplish this, caffeine blocks the production of adenosine. Adenosine is a naturally produced neurotransmitter that tells your brain it’s tired, and makes you feel groggy at the end of the day. Caffeine looks like adenosine to nerve cells, so when caffeine attaches itself to adenosine receptors, adenosine stops being produced. As a result, after consuming caffeine, you feel awake, energized, and your mood improves for 5-6 hours.

Caffeine can be a positive force if used correctly. Caffeine is a drug, and with every drug, there is a risk when using it. Low to moderate doses of caffeine are typically regarded as safe; scientists recommend not exceeding 300 mg of caffeine per day as adults. For teens, doctors recommend less, between 100-200 mg. Long term use of coffee, in particular, is even shown to lower your risk of diseases, such as cardiovascular disease or neurological issues. Due to how coffee improves alertness, it’s even linked to improved cognitive function. The mood-boosting effects of coffee also make people happier in the long run. However, these studies are unsure why coffee is beneficial, and whether caffeine is the compound at work.

With all of this in mind, it’s important to recognize that everyone processes caffeine differently. Genetically, some people face more side effects associated with caffeine than others, and tolerances vary. Finding an amount that works for you, if any, is important if you choose to consume caffeine. In moderation, caffeine is not harmful to most people.

Common side effects associated with caffeine are jitters, headaches, heart palpitations, increased anxiety, and disrupted sleep. People who don’t regularly consume caffeine are more likely to experience side effects. These side effects typically wear off once caffeine has reached it’s half-life--where half the amount of caffeine you consumed remains in the body--which is about 5-6 hours after consumption. Additionally, if you regularly consume caffeine, you can develop a dependency. The brain produces more adenosine to combat the effects of caffeine, which means you’ll have to consume more to get the same effect. Consuming more increases the likelihood of side effects. Caffeine can’t effectively be used to make up for sleep deprivation. Instead, a cycle will be created: feelings of fatigue prompt caffeine consumption, caffeine further disrupts sleep, and more caffeine is consumed to make up for what is lost. It’s important to maintain a healthy sleep schedule and drinking coffee can’t replace one. If you’re struggling with sleep, seeing a doctor can help you get to the cause.

If you’re trying to cut back on caffeine, adenosine makes it difficult. If you quit cold turkey, the sudden abundance of adenosine in the brain can create unpleasant effects like headaches, jitters, irritability, and general discomfort. This is why it’s best to slowly wean off of caffeine instead of quitting all at once. After your body adjusts, you’ll feel back to normal.

Based on the science, keeping your morning cup or two of coffee is likely not harmful. When used in moderation, the positive effects of caffeine can wake you up and help you start your day. Being aware of caffeine’s effects, how to use it, and how it works helps you make informed decisions about your health.

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