Medicine

Published on August 28th, 2017 | by Anna Cranston

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Caffeine — does it really make you more alert?

If you are one of the millions of people who rely on that daily cup of coffee (or two, or three, or four….) just to kick-start your brain in the morning, then you are definitely not alone. Caffeine is currently the most commonly used mood-altering drug worldwide, with intake increasing every year. So whether you reach for that coffee fix first thing as a wake-up call, or simply to keep yourself alert throughout the day, ask yourself this – is caffeine really making me more alert?

Preventing that tired feeling

When we consume caffeine, whether it be through an espresso, tea or energy drink, this powerful stimulant has an immediate effect on our body. The molecule of caffeine itself acts by directly blocking the adenosine receptor – the neurotransmitter in our brain responsible for that sleepy feeling we experience all too often. Caffeine also directly stimulates the production of adrenaline, which works to activate our body’s fight-or-flight response, immediately increasing our heart rate, breathing and digestion. In doing this we are artificially stimulating our brains into high-alert mode, leaving you feeling that classic caffeine hit within just a few minutes. Now this effect is certainly not short-lived, with caffeine remaining in your system for up to six hours, keeping you going throughout the day. But in addition to helping us keep those sleepy eyes open, does its consumption actually improve our work performance?

Are you a caffeine addict, or non-user?

Interestingly, the effects of caffeine seem to have a much lesser effect on those of us who rely on a daily fix of the good stuff, compared to those who rarely or never drink it all. The reason for this, is that as frequent users we actually build-up a tolerance to its effects, causing us to increase our caffeine intake to achieve the same energising effects (sound familiar?). This occurs because we are over-stimulating the production of adrenaline as we increase our caffeine intake, until we eventually become desensitised to its effects over time, causing little or no effect at all. In contrast, those who rarely ingest caffeine experience a much more rapid response, and it’s not uncommon to experience an increased heart rate, urination, and those well-known “caffeine jitters” – all too common to those first-time coffee drinkers!

Work faster, but not necessarily harder

So does caffeine increase our productivity? Well the answer is no….and yes. In small doses, over the short-term, yes. Caffeine does provide you with a boost of alertness and energy, which may lead to an increased work output. Despite this, research so far has suggested that whilst caffeine users certainly felt more awake, there is actually no concrete evidence for long-term improvement on attention and mental alertness. (Bad news for some!) However, as with any substance, the effects of caffeine are undoubtedly highly dependent on many factors, such as intake, body type, weight and age, ultimately suggesting the effects are all based upon your individual physiology and genetic variance.

So the next time you reach for that tall, triple-shot espresso to prep yourself during exam season, ask yourself this – will this really keep me more alert?

Featured image by Cams. (CC BY-NC 2.0) on Flickr.

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