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What is Caffeine & How Does it Affect Your Body?

We know caffeine is a naturally occurring compound found in leaves and fruits but do we know how it affects our body?

This article sheds light on caffeine culture, the pros and cons of drinking coffee, and answers commonly asked “caffeine” questions.

Coffee cup on table

What is Caffeine?

Caffeine is a natural stimulant that has been used for centuries to increase energy. It affects the brain by blocking adenosine receptors. For all you folks like me who are terrified of chemistry, adenosine makes you sleepy. The compound connects to receptors on the brain to make you tired.

But not if caffeine gets there first! Ingesting caffeine (a compound that acts & looks similar to adenosine) connects to those same receptors. Just kidding, brain! You actually have some energy now thanks to this caffeine imposter!

Caffeine itself can take many forms, tea and coffee being the most popular. But which came first? Drumroll. Tea wins by a landslide.

The origin of tea dates back to 2737 B.C.E. when a Chinese emperor accidentally stumbled upon the drink. Some leaves blew into some boiling water, and he was brave enough to take a sip.

The origin of coffee is thanks to an observant 9th-century goat herder named Kaldi. After discovering that his flock was particularly energetic after eating some mysterious berries, he decided to investigate.

Thanks to Kaldi’s self-sacrificial willingness, 64% of adults in America have their wake-up juice. But the first batches weren’t so successful.

Kaldi’s test group was at a monastery. These meditative monks weren’t too happy with the mind-boggling effects of this concentrated dose.

Eventually, the preparation was refined, and future arabica tree fans started steeping the beans like tea.If this gift of caffeine is so natural and so magical, why is there so much controversy surrounding its benefits?

It’s like eggs—research keeps us on the edge of our seat with each new study. Should we have them or not? Elixir from the gods or an addictive drug?

In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn about these controversies and more—where caffeine is found, the health benefits, and some of the risks involved. Hold on to that coffee buzz—we’ve got a lot of ground to cover!


Where Do You Find It?

Coffee

Enjoyed around the world, coffee is one of the most consumed of all the beverages. Although the United States and Scandinavian countries drink the most brew, coffee is primarily grown along the equator—with Columbia and Brazil being the largest producers.

The brown coffee beans you’re accustomed to seeing don’t just grow on trees. Well, maybe they do, but, it’s a little more complex.

How does coffee go from seed to cup?

Coffee trees can take up to 4-6 years to produce fruit—that’s the coffee cherry. Only harvested when they are bright red (or at peak ripeness), the cherries are then stripped of their pulp. The bean is what’s left! After it’s dried, roasted, and ground, it’s ready for your cup.

But this is just the basic process. There are a variety of beans, many styles of roasting, and even brewing can change the outcome of the taste. Do you know what else all these variants affect? You guessed it—caffeine content.

Here are some fun facts:

Robusta beans (like the name implies) have twice as much caffeine content as Arabica beans.

Bolder doesn’t equal better. A common misconception is that dark roasts are bolder and stronger. False! The longer beans are roasted, the more caffeine is burned away. Lighter roasted beans actually have higher caffeine content.

The hotter the water, the better the extraction! Optimum extraction happens around 200 degrees, but even the best drip machines get around 190 degrees.

Brew style matters. It’s not just about the machine, though. It mostly has to do with the combination of two things: grind level and time exposed to water.

Drip coffee may not experience the high-pressure heat of the espresso machine, but it’s exposed to hot water for over 5 minutes (as opposed to a 20-second espresso pull). Then there’s grind level—the finer the grind, the easier/faster the extraction.

If the suggestions are followed, the grind pairs would be fine for espresso, medium for drip, and coarse for a french press.

Tea

Tea is the most ancient of all the caffeinated drinks. It dates back thousands of years even before the dawn of coffee. What began in the Far East as part of a medicinal practice soon spread around the world. A Portuguese missionary brought tea leaves back to Europe after visiting China.

But aren’t the British famous for their tea obsession? Yes, but until the 17th century, England was mostly a coffee-drinking country. Still today, there is a 50/50 split between coffee and tea consumption. Check out this map to see the coffee vs. tea balance around the world.

In the late 1600’s, Charles II married a Portuguese royal named Catherine of Braganza. She is credited with requesting tea time in the courts, and that’s when the love affair began. Tea went from genteel beverage to a huge sign of power among many countries. Soon, England established a foothold in the Far East by securing a tea factory in Macao.

And we’re all familiar with the Boston Tea Party. About a century after Catherine of Braganza started the craze, Britain imposed an astronomical tax on the tea being sent to the colonies. This was to help Britain repay loads of debt they’d acquired. Needless to say, tea has played a huge role in both culture and history.

Chocolate

My wife is extremely sensitive to caffeine. Even the small amounts in chocolate will keep her tossing & turning at night. We definitely have to avoid chocolatey treats at night. So does chocolate have a comparable amount of caffeine with coffee?

Not quite. Like I said, my wife is hypersensitive. For comparison, 1 cup of coffee has roughly 150 milligrams of caffeine, while half of a chocolate bar only has 50 milligrams. But it’s not just any chocolate.

Dark chocolate has a higher content. Take a bar of 70% cacao dark chocolate. Obviously, it has a higher cacao concentrate, so it’s going to have more caffeine than regular milk chocolate. It’s practically double the amount (1.5 oz bar of dark is 20 mg, milk is 10 mg).

Compared to a cup of joe, this definitely doesn’t seem like enough to keep you up at night. So should you be blaming your insomnia on chocolate? Perhaps.

Maté

Move over, tea. Your hipster rival is in town. Have heard about the trendy drink called Yerba Maté? If not, don’t worry. You’re not the only one. To be honest, the details have been unclear to me until I started writing this blog—we are learning together!

I was under the impression that it was another style of tea. Nope! Maté is derived from a tropical plant in South America. The twigs are stripped, dried, and aged for nearly 3 years before becoming Maté ready. Traditionally, it is served in a small gourd with a metal straw.

Although it has more caffeine than most teas, it’s said to be a better alternative to coffee because it doesn’t give you the jitters. According to the Republic of Tea, Maté has been said to “contain the caffeine effects of coffee, the health effects of tea, and the euphoria effects of chocolate.” (4)

For centuries, indigenous tribes in South America (specifically Argentina and Paraguay) have been brewing Maté. Like tea, it was used for its medicinal qualities. When Spanish explorers come to look for gold and silver in the 1500s, they were intrigued by the energy of the tribespeople.

So why is it not quite as popular and widespread as tea? Because of its more “twiggy” taste, Maté can be an acquired taste for some. But the benefits are amazing. It’s loaded with antioxidants and can boost your immune system.

Painkillers

I know you’re saying this is a weird addition to the list, but I promised you an uncommon host of caffeine—and this is it! Believe it or not, many painkillers (both Rx and over the counter) have caffeine in them.

It is still unclear exactly why the presence of caffeine in pain medicine increases effectiveness. But a study done by a researcher at The University of Oxford U.K. reveal positive feedback.

Over 7,000 participants were part of this study in which painkillers were given to various patients—some drugs had caffeine, some did not. A significantly larger portion of the control group experienced more relief when they received painkillers with caffeine—a 5-10% increase from when caffeine was not present.

Senior researcher, Dr. Sheena Derry explains: “The stimulant could have multiple effects, including getting other drugs into the bloodstream faster, raising their concentration by slowing their clearance from the bloodstream, directly affecting how nerves perceive pain, or even changing how people perceive pain by affecting their moods or emotions.” (5)


Health Benefits (& Risks)

I could make a list of 100 different effects of caffeine. Each has their pros and cons, but it all boils down to this: caffeine affects people on a case by case basis. If there are things about your body chemistry that don’t jive with it, don’t ingest it. It’s that simple!

Doctors have concluded that there are no caffeine cons bad enough to advise against it. Sure, there’s a lethal dose, but you’d have to drink 70 cups of coffee, back-to-back to hit that mark. If you’re chain drinking that much joe, then I think you have bigger problems!

For a better understanding of how caffeine can help or harm certain people, let’s dive into a few of these facts.

Health Benefits of Coffee

Source: Pinterest

Detox liver and clean colon

Using coffee in a study, medical professionals have discovered that daily consumption of caffeine can protect the liver and its function. It has been shown to lower liver cancer rates, lower inflammation, and lower certain harmful enzyme rates. Consistent coffee drinking even seemed to combat ill-effects of alcohol-induced cirrhosis.

Memory and Alzheimer’s

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term Alzheimer’s, I automatically want to know what I can do to prevent it. Like a lot of other prominent diseases, there are no cures, but there are promising statistics showing that some symptoms can be warded off. Enter caffeine.

There have been studies that support coffee’s favorable effects against cognitive decline. Caffeine blocks inflammation of the brain—especially the adenosine receptors. The adenosine receptors are the first domino to fall in dementia.

Neuroscientist Chuanhai Cao, said of the study: “These intriguing results suggest that older adults with mild memory impairment who drink moderate levels of coffee — about three cups a day — will not convert to Alzheimer’s disease or at least will experience a substantial delay before converting to Alzheimer’s.” (6)

Causes anxiety

Just as I’m riding a wave of relief about coffee’s role in preventing memory loss (and brewing an afternoon pot of joe), I read this. Caffeine can make me more anxious? Ugh.

Caffeine affects the body like a stress hormone—think about it. Increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, etc. Caffeine is affecting our central nervous system like a haunted house. Fight or flight (or fright!) around every corner.

Too much caffeine can also throw off your “happy balance”. We crave the initial feeling, though. You feel increased motivation, productivity, and brain power—what’s not to love? Unfortunately, “caffeine hinders the calming neurotransmitter GABA, which puts the brain activity on hold when needed. GABA is married to happiness and relaxation, so it’s no surprise that having a low GABA level can lead to anxiety and panic attacks.” (7)

Moral of the story: there is such thing as too much of a good thing. Drinking 7 cups of coffee isn’t going to ward off memory loss any better than 2 cups. You’ll just be bouncing off the walls or smelling sounds (synaesthesia is a real thing).

Affects bone density

Listen up, ladies. This one’s for you. Since women are more prone to bone degeneration, this is an important topic. There’s a lot of speculation about the role caffeine plays in the absorption of calcium. Here’s the real answer.

Around 2-4% of women studied (in a group of about 60,000 women) were found to have lower bone density because of high caffeine intake (> 4 cups of coffee/day). The good news: this didn’t contribute to an increased risk of fracture.

So why the concern? Some doctors are concluding that the sheer volume of caffeine (whether it be via coffee, tea, or soda) is prohibiting proper calcium intake (i.e. milk). In other words, don’t rely on that tablespoon of cream in your coffee to do the trick!


Caffeine Culture

Coffee meme "I sleep just to wake up for coffee"

Source: Pinterest

Caffeine has evolved into a cultural necessity. There are coffee shops on every corner, we revolve our socializing around coffee meet-ups, and we use it medicinally to power though works days and test cramming nights.

Drinkable caffeine has become more pretentious over time, too. Gourmet drinks and milk of all types (almond, soy, skim, frothed and steamed) have a hold on our routines and our wallets. Drinks have become a fad, and even the need for them has become fashionable.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a student lament over their exhaustion and their desire for coffee. You’re not part of the in crowd unless you’re on the caffeine cycle: drained, buzzed, crashed.

As helpful as this pep-in-your-step may be, a harmless latte is turning into a 6-pack of energy drinks for some young people. Deaths are being reported because of this abuse. Energy drinks are usually the culprit because they are a mixture of intense amounts of sugar and chemical caffeine.

Bottom line, my advice is to stick with naturally occurring caffeine (like coffee & tea). This also leads me to our first frequently asked question. Let’s address these concerns.

FAQs

Q: Is caffeine a drug?

A: Yes. The FDA  states that anything stimulating the nervous system with quick alertness is considered a drug. Caffeine is addictive and you can go through withdrawals. Symptoms of irritability and headaches top the list.

Q: Are energy drinks bad for you?

A: Depends on which one you drink, but for the most part yes. CaffeineInformer.com talks about energy drink ingredients and its effects here.

Q: How much caffeine is too much?

A: As little as 1 tablespoon could be deadly according to this study which is concerning since anyone can buy pure powdered caffeine.

Q: Is there caffeine in decaf coffee?

A: There is indeed caffeine in decaf coffee. For labels to advertise “Decaf”, the coffee bean must only be 95-97% free of caffeine. Even though the trace is minimal, there is still caffeine there.

Q: How is coffee decaffeinated?

A: Some companies use a chemical solvent to extract caffeine from green coffee beans. There’s also a water-based process but most of the methods still aren’t completely chemical-free.

Q: What is “Fair Trade” coffee or tea?

A: Fair Trade is an ethical movement. It ensures that everyone from farmers and growers to producers to shoppers are treated with dignity and paid fairly.

This movement creates sustainable business while taking care of the planet and its inhabitants. Check out the Fair Trade website to learn more about the positive impact of this movement.

Q: What are signs of caffeine hypersensitivity?

A: Some of the most common signs include heart palpitations, trouble focusing, irritability, and a sudden rush upon consumption.

Q: Is caffeine consumption okay during pregnancy?

A: Like many things in life, moderation is key. Caffeine does cross the placenta and affect the fetus but mild amounts of coffee are fine.

If you exceed 200 mg (12 oz cup of coffee) the fetus has trouble filtering it out of their system so stick with a modest cup in the morning to get you going, and you (and your baby) will be ready to take on the day.


Final Thoughts

So there you have it. Everything you wanted to know about caffeine (maybe more than you wanted to know!) To sum it all up, caffeine is powerful—but it can also be helpful. We just have to know how to use it properly.

It’s so important to be educated on what you’re putting in your body, especially something that’s considered a drug by the FDA. Listen to your body. If you’re wanting or needing that caffeine boost, maybe ask yourself another question—are you getting proper sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, and exercising?

The next time you’re brewing coffee or steeping tea, take time to think about what you’re ingesting. Knowing the history and properties of a food/drink helps to connect us. Each sip tells a story about a grower across the world.

So what about you? Are you a caffeine fan? Let us know why or why not in the comments below!