Considered by many to be one of the major food groups, caffeine is a wonderful little drug that helps to make the world go round.
But despite its prominence in our lives, it’s still poorly understood by the majority of those who consume it. And while ignorance is often bliss, I don’t believe that’s the case here.
I also don't believe it's necessary for everyone to have a complete working knowledge of how caffeine works on a cellular level, but there is one thing you need to understand in order to make an informed, responsible decision about the ifs, whens, and how muches of your own caffeine consumption.
First, a little background...
WHAT IS CAFFEINE?
Caffeine is a nervous system stimulant. What that means is that it revs up your nervous system, leading to increased alertness, mental focus, etc.
I don't see the need to go into the details of its chemical structure or classification, but there's a google for that if you're interested.
HOW DOES CAFFEINE WORK?
Caffeine works by blocking the action of adenosine.
Adenosine, as we all remember*, is released throughout the day, binds to receptor sites in the brain and throughout the body, and causes sleepiness and fatigue as it builds up. Basically, it inhibits stimulation of the nervous system.
*Just kidding - I didn’t remember that from biology, either.
Caffeine fits nicely into these receptor sites, and, so, inhibits the detection of adenosine.
Less adenosine detected = less nervous system inhibition = less sleepiness.
For most folks, the main sought-after effect of a dose—or 6—of caffeine is the quintessential boost in energy. However, the mechanism explained above indicates that caffeine doesn't give you energy so much as it stimulates the body to want to burn more of it.
That is an incredibly important distinction.
Imagine a steam engine. While most people would equate caffeine to the coal that your favorite cartoon character is shoveling in, it's actually more like some jerk off to the side yelling at him/her to work faster.
The increased effort might help the train move along its route a little more quickly in the short-term, but prolonged overuse of this tactic will eventually just wear down the one doing the shoveling and leave behind a build-up of waste products that never have a chance to be cleaned out.
While caffeine consumption can have many beneficial effects (more on that here), consistently relying on it to get you through the day while ignoring other aspects of your health will do more harm than good. Without proper rest, recovery, and nutritional support, all you’re doing is cracking the whip and making the engine work harder.
Give yourself a little boost, sure; but don't forget to slow down every once in awhile, too.