The Coffee Illusion: What the Magic Brew Really Does to Your Brain
This story is cross-posted from You Are Not So Smart.
The Misconception: Coffee stimulates you.
The Truth: You become addicted to caffeine quickly, and soon you are drinking coffee to cure withdrawal more than for stimulation.
Mmmm, a warm cup of coffee with delicious cream, topped with a frothy head.
You smell it brewing and feel cozy inside as you browse cakes and brownies, scones and biscotti.
You get some of it in you, and you feel alive again – you feel superhuman.
Suddenly, you feel like John Nash, you can’t keep up with your own mind as geometric symbols float over the magazine articles in your lap. Someone strikes up a conversation about health care, and suddenly everything you’ve ever heard about the topic is at the tip of your tongue.
Damn, coffee is awesome.
Except, of course, much of this is an illusion.
The truth is, once you’ve been drinking coffee for a while, the feeling you are getting after a cup isn’t the difference between the normal you and the super you, it’s the difference between the addict before and after a fix.
Ok, this is a very simplified explanation:
Caffeine is an adenosine antagonist. This means it prevents adenosine from doing its job.
Your brain is filled with keys which fit specific keyholes. Adenosine is one of those keys, but caffeine can fit in the same keyhole.
When caffeine gets in there, it keeps adenosine from getting in.
Adenosine does a lot of stuff all throughout your body, but the most noticeable job it has is to suppress your nervous system. With caffeine stuck in the keyhole, adenosine can’t calm you down. It can’t make you drowsy. It can’t get you to shut up.
That crazy wired feeling you get when you drink a lot of coffee is what it feels like when your brain can’t turn itself off.
To compensate, your brain creates a ton of new receptor sites. The plan is to have more keyholes than false keys.
The result is you become very sensitive to adenosine, and without coffee you get overwhelmed by its effects.
After eight hours of sleep, you wake up with a head swimming with adenosine. You feel like shit until you get that black gold in you to clean out those receptor sites.
That perk you feel isn’t adding anything substantial to you – it’s bringing you back to just above zero.
In addition, coffee stimulates your adrenal glands, which makes you feel like you could take a bullet and eat glass. When the adrenaline runs dry, you feel like you’ve been running a marathon, which leads you to look for more coffee to get those glands pumping again.
After a few rides on the adrenal roller-coaster, you crash.
You might think all of this probably takes a while, but it takes about seven days to become addicted to caffeine.
Once addicted, you need more and more coffee to get buzzed as your brain gets covered in receptor sites. Neurologists report seeing patients regularly who drink two or three pots of coffee in one sitting before starting their day.
Coffee also releases dopamine, the feel-good chemical in the brain which is released when you have an orgasm, win the lottery and shoot heroin. A similar addiction cycle with dopamine leads to depression and fatigue when you aren’t hitting the beans.
Finally, caffeine takes about six hours to leave your system. So if you drink coffee six hours or less before going to bed, you won’t reach deep sleep as often. This means you wake up less rested, and need more coffee.
If you’ve been drinking coffee for a while, you aren’t getting nearly as much out of it as you did in the beginning. You are just curing an addiction.
“The take home is that regular use of caffeine produces no benefit to alertness, energy, or function. Regular caffeine users are simply staving off caffeine withdrawal with every dose – using caffeine just to return them to their baseline. This makes caffeine a net negative for alertness, or neutral at best if use is regular enough to avoid any withdrawal.”
- Neurologist Stephen Novella from his blog, Neurologica
Mind you, this is not a dependency. You will experience withdrawal symptoms upon cessation, but not like with amphetamines and cocaine.
Coffee doesn’t seem to affect the dopaminergic structures related to reward, but before you breathe a sigh of relief, ask yourself how long you’ve been drinking it. Try and stop for two weeks and see how hard it is.
A cup or three will still give you pep, but as with all stimulants, over time you need more and more to reach that golden hum.