Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world, largely due to its mood-enhancing and stimulatory effects. It is a powerful stimulant, and it can be used to improve physical strength and endurance.
Despite widespread consumption, few people are actually aware of how caffeine works in the body. Whether you’re under pressure to meet a deadline or just dragging a bit on a Monday morning, there are ways you can maximise the effects of caffeine to help you out.
After all, caffeine is a drug, and there’s a lot that science can tell us about it so that we can use it more effectively.
FIRST, THE SCIENCE: IT'S ALL ABOUT ADENOSINE
Adenosine is one of the best-known sleep-regulating molecules. Located in your central nervous system, it helps get you sleepy as the day winds down, among other effects.
Adenosine itself is produced primarily from physical work and intensive brain use. Over the course of the day, your body accumulates adenosine. As adenosine is created in the brain, it binds to adenosine receptors. This binding causes drowsiness by slowing down nerve cell activity. In the brain, this also causes blood vessels to dilate, letting more oxygen into the brain during sleep.
When you first wake up, your body has metabolised the adenosine molecules. If you've had adequate sleep, you often wake up feeling alert as adenosine levels are low.
Most people have caffeine in beverage form. It’s absorbed in the small intestines within an hour and becomes available throughout the blood and most parts of the body, including your brain.
Caffeine allows us to feel more awake by competing with a molecule that promotes sleepiness called adenosine. Caffeine has a similar shape to adenosine and prevents it from binding to its receptors. Instead of slowing down because of adenosine's effect, the nerve cells speed up, resulting in increased neuron firing.
The pituitary gland senses this activity and thinks some sort of emergency must be occurring, so it releases hormones that tell the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline (epinephrine).
If you understand how caffeine works - you can understand how to use it most effectively (insert evil genius laugh here).
Caffeine can give you a mental boost and a buzz to help you feel more alert but its effects vary from person to person. It's also addictive and something you can build up a tolerance to.
The basic guideline, caffeinate before you feel tired. When you feel tired, adenosine has already latched on to those receptors, giving caffeine less of a chance to block it.
Try these hacks to get the most out of your hit.
1. CAFFEINATE BEFORE YOUR WORKOUT
Caffeine is a cheap and legal performance-enhancing drug.
In endurance events - like triathlons, marathons, and cycling races - caffeine provides a serious performance boost. In experiments that mimic races, caffeine took an average of 3% off of athletes’ finish times. In some cases, the effect was as large as 17%. This explains why energy gels usually contain caffeine.
Three percent translates to about two minutes an hour. Would you like to shave a minute off your 5K time, or seven minutes off a four-hour marathon, just by choosing the right breakfast? Yeah, me too.
To get the exercise benefits, you’ll want between 3 and 6 milligrams of caffeine for every kilogram you weigh. So if you weigh 70 kg that's 210 - 420mg of caffeine. For context, a standard double-shot flat white has about 150mg of caffeine.
Blood concentrations of caffeine tend to peak within two hours, which means it's best to take your hit of caffeine about an hour before your event starts.
Because you'll likely build up a tolerance to the effects of caffeine, for best results you may want to go off caffeine for a week or more before a big event.
2. HAVE A CAFFEINE NAP
It seems counterintuitive - drinking caffeine before going to sleep - but for naps, it can actually be helpful. You can think of caffeine as a multi-purpose tool here: In addition to making you alert when you first wake up, it can also help your nap be more effective - if you time it right.
To set yourself up for a caffeine nap, drink a cup of coffee before a short nap (maybe mid-afternoon, or mid night shift) to get all the brain-boosting benefits of a nap while being energised when you wake up about 20 minutes later when the caffeine kicks in. The trick here is to keep the nap short and sweet (about 20 minutes).
3. HAVE YOUR FIRST CUPPA WITHIN AN HOUR OF WAKING UP
Many coffee drinkers roll out of bed and reach for their coffee maker, or have prepped and programmed it to start at just the right time (because why would you make the effort in those precious morning minutes if you can do it the night before? Just saying).
Time your first hit with your body's internal clock. Let's say you have a 6:30 am wake-up time, this means that your natural cortisol levels will be highest in the morning usually between 8 am - 9 am. Cortisol isn't just the "stress hormone", it also has an impact on our alertness. So if we drink coffee at the same time we're naturally most alert, we're wasting the potential boost we could get from the caffeine.
Assuming you're up around 6:30 am, your cortisol levels naturally rise between 8 - 9 am, 12 - 1 pm and 5:30 - 6:30 pm, so it's best to drink coffee outside of those time. Assuming you work days (not some night shift schedule), this means the most effective time to have your first coffee is between 9:30 - 11:30 am.
Rule of thumb: no matter what time you wake up, give your body about an hour before you have your first cuppa for best effectiveness. And have your last hit at least 6 hours before you go to bed because it will still be in your system.
Pro tip: Upon first waking, having a big glass of water. Often the grogginess we feel is dehydration.
4. TRY CYCLING YOUR INTAKE
Habitual caffeine use leads to tolerance. This means the effects of caffeine will be diminished, often to the point where the only benefit is caffeine’s anti-sleep effect. Drinking coffee just once a day is enough to increase your caffeine tolerance.
If you find that you're not getting much of a buzz from caffeinated drinks anymore, try cycling your intake by briefly not drinking any caffeine for about a month to reset your sensitivity.
Just like with other drugs, giving up caffeine can result in withdrawal symptoms. If you struggle with caffeine withdrawal and want to cut back on your addiction while still enjoying your daily coffee (because you like the taste), you can switch to half-caf or tea. Regardless of your alternatives, cut back slowly to wean yourself off it.
You can see why your body might like caffeine in the short term, especially if you are low on sleep and need to remain active. Caffeine blocks adenosine reception so you feel alert. It injects adrenaline into the system to give you a boost. And it manipulates dopamine production to make you feel good.
5. LESS BUT BETTER
If you want the optimal mental boost from your caffeine, try small or moderate doses throughout the day. This could be 20 - 200mg in those times between cortisol peaks.
In general, how do you maximise the benefits of caffeine? Use less of it. Or to be more specific, use it less frequently. It may be difficult, but limiting your caffeine intake to once or twice a week is the best way to get more from each cup.
Source: Robin Smith (Synergy Health)
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