Cognitive Fitness Chapter 7 – Caffeine – Had any psychoactive drugs today?

Our latest research looks at the factors that most impact our cognitive performance – so individuals and organisations can understand and adopt best practices to get everyone’s brain in peak condition. Last time we looked at the importance of exercise and having an active lifestyle. This time we are looking at the effects of caffeine on your brain – it can have a positive impact but use in moderation!

Caffeine is often quoted as the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug. In most parts of the world it is legal and unregulated. A psychoactive drug, psychotropic or psychopharmaceutical is a chemical substance that changes brain function and results in alterations in perception, mood, or consciousness. I bet you never thought of your morning coffee or tea as psychoactive substances?!

Why is caffeine’s impact on the brain important to understand?

Caffeine is found in fluids such as coffee, tea, energy drinks, hot chocolate, many soft drinks and chocolate. After caffeine intake, the naturally occurring stimulant effect takes place quickly (within minutes), blocking chemical signals in your brain, essentially stopping you from feeling sleepy. Acting as a mild stimulant to the central nervous system – it leads to improved mental performance, greater alertness, better concentration and greater levels of attention.

The way this psychoactive drugs seems to work is that it interacts with the adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine regulates cycles of sleeping and waking, and while you’re awake, it accumulates in the brain, eventually causing you to feel drowsy – encouraging you to rest and sleep. It works to stop the brain detecting adenosine, so the signals to slow down and rest are not received – and more than that, the body prepares itself for action!

Featured in most modern offices will be a cafe or coffee station. This service provided to knowledge workers acts to make sure they have access to the tools they need to perform their best. Effective workplace management will always ensure human performance is at the forefront of the workplace experience and design.

If we want to stay alert all day, is this the green light for more caffeine consumption?

Hold on…. you have undoubtedly heard through the media, research and medical opinion that although there are some potentially beneficial responses to caffeine – these are balanced by some adverse effects on the body and blood pressure.

A known stimulant, the body (and brain) undoubtedly adapt to the level that we habitually drink on a daily basis, thus reducing the impact of any single caffeine ‘event’.

Imagine if you never drank caffeine and then had a strong espresso – it’s likely that the big hit of caffeine would have a significant impact on your alertness – more so than the third coffee drunk by a 4 cup a day person, for example.

Can you get addicted to caffeine?

The use of the word “addicted” is problematic here. While some research indicates that we can become very acclimated to a regular amount of caffeine – as such making it a real habit that’s hard to break – the World Health Organisation hasn’t found any evidence that it has comparable physical and social consequences associated with “addiction”.

That said, anyone that has given up coffee for a period of time will probably have experienced withdrawal symtoms– headache, nausea, dizziness, sensitivity to noise, fatigue, reduced alertness, irritability and sleepiness, as the body adjusts without its normal “fix”.

It is also important to recognise that some painkillers contain caffeine, as it appears to improve their ability to decrease the pain that we experience. It is apparently most noticeable with headache pain.

How much caffeine is ok?

There is no hard and fast rule here – general advice indicates that a maximum of 3-4 drinks containing caffeine per day is advisable.

Bear in mind that it takes several hours (sources suggest 3-5 hours) for the body to break caffeine down, which is why drinking caffeine close to bedtime can interfere with your ability to get to sleep.

Also think about how many beverages and snacks contain caffeine – one cup of coffee + one cup of tea + a can of coke + a chocolate bar is probably the limit of what you should be consuming in a day! Be wary of your nutritional intake as well as what you have for breakfast.

So is caffeine a diuretic?

While it is popularly understood that caffeine has diuretic properties, we believe that these conclusions have perhaps been exaggerated. Caffeine is known to have a mild diuretic effect (causing the need to urinate) but doesn’t appear to increase the risk of dehydration. It seems from a number of research studies that the degree to which caffeine has diuretic properties depends on a number of other factors – such as the body’s own tolerance of the substance for example.

The fact that people often notice an increased need to urinate after having coffee may have something to do with the fact that if they are already well hydrated, the body is simply getting rid of unwanted fluid. Also, caffeine is believed to stimulate / irritate the bladder muscles – due to its acidic composition. Having milk/cream can reduce the acidity (and thus its potential to irritate) and drinking smaller drinks during the day also reduces the amount of “irritant” you consume at any one time.

Cognitive Fitness - Caffeine - cognitive performance - workplace management - awa - advanced workplace associates

5 Caffeine tips we would advise

    1. When you have a drink containing caffeine, have a glass of water as well – just to be on the safe side!
    2. Maybe reduce the amount of caffeine you consume per day (over a period of time) to suggested levels. If you normally have 4 cups a day, start by reducing to 3 cups for a few days, then 2 cups for the next few days etc., until you reach the level you feel is right for you. You want to avoid that withdrawal phase if you can – recognise that caffeine is essentially a drug that you need to withdraw from sensibly – don’t go “cold turkey” or you’ll risk up to a week of nasty headaches and other symptoms as your body adjusts.
    3. Keep that additional cup for a time when you are working on something tedious, where you need to pay attention or where you have become mentally tired.
    4. Drink more water than caffeine – it doesn’t have any calories, its free and readily available. Give yourself time to adapt…
    5. Pay some attention to what you’re drinking and how you’re feeling. Think about thirst, headaches, tiredness, attention levels and how they vary according to what you’re drinking.

In summary – listen to your body. Most people know if they drink too much caffeine they can tell. Some people feel “hyper”, some experience shakes, some can’t sleep, others have digestive problems. There is a good balance for you – you just have to find it and keep alert to changes. Experiment and pay attention to what happens so you can learn about your own body and mind.

Give your brain a great day – try having coffee when you need it – water is much better to keep you hydrated!

Next time we’ll tell you all about the sixth factor – its glucose sweetie!