Caffeine blocks adenosine (a brain relaxing chemical), making us more alert and awake. For some people this is perfect for performance, either mentally, or physically, whilst for others it can adversely affect sleep (more on that later). The effect on adenosine has been linked with delaying or reducing risk of onset of dementia, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's Disease. Some studies have also found moderate intake of coffee (3-4 cups per day) reduces risk of heart disease and death, and offers the same amount of fibre as ingesting a banana or bowl of cereal. Polyphenols are present in high levels in both caffeinated and decaffeinated drinks, and these are known to aid our gut health, assisting the growth of 'good' bacteria, and we know from previous posts that gut health is a great indicator of overall health.
Most people know that agitation and mental health disorders can be aggravated by caffeine, with it being discouraged in people who suffer with anxiety and/or depression. Caffeine can also stimulate bowels (due to the fibre content) which is great to get things moving in the morning or if you're a bit backed up, but not so great if you have IBS, or diverticulitis. It's also a diuertic, meaning it makes you pee more. This can lead to higher concentration of urine which can irritate the bladder; not so fun if you struggle with pelvic floor issues such as stress or urge incontinence, or have an overactive bladder. And of course, sleep: the effects of caffeine kicks in after30 mins, peaking at 2 hours, but it can stay in your system for up to seven hours, with some studies indicating a coffee at lunch will only have reduced bloodstream levels by 50% at bedtime. This may be due to sensitivity levels (see below) which is why a lot of people stick to drinking coffee in the morning to avoid sleep disruption, but even an evening cup of tea could be responsible for disturbed sleep
Did you know that your response to caffeine depends on your sensitivity to it? Hormones, certain medications or drugs, nicotine, what you eat, and even your gender all play a role. Cruciferous vegetables (green leafy veg), and nicotine inhibits the effects, whilst the contraceptive pill, antidepressants, and being female all increases sensitivity. This is possibly why insomnia is more common in coffee-drinking older women, where hormones and gender will play a role. The amount of caffeine in drinks also varies widely. In the case of coffee, the type of bean, roasting process, coffee type and size, and even the barista influences the amount of caffeine you'll receive in your drink, being as low as 40mg and as high as 200mg. References: Spector, 2020; Jardim 2020; Chatterjee, 2020
I often hear about Mums who don't function without their morning coffee, using it to power through sleepless nights; and how often are tradesman the butt of jokes about the number of cuppas consumed in a day? There's even a quiz you can take identifying what colour tea you opt for and what this says about you, so what does caffeine do for us health wise?
For years coffee in particular has been touted as being bad for our health. Caffeine is the most popular psychoactive stimulant in the world, being associated with nicotine, drugs, and alcohol in its ability to alter our mood, thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It's been postulated to increase the likelihood of cancer, heart disease, anxiety and depression, and is often touted as the reason for a poor night's sleep. Highest levels are found in coffee, with tea, chocolate and green tea coming in at lower levels. Caffeine is even present in decaffeinated drinks but obviously to a significantly lesser degree. It can be addictive, with withdrawal symptoms including headaches, fatigue, mood swings and body aches, so is something so popular good or bad for us?
I can't see that I'll ever start on tea or coffee given I've got to my 40s and two small children without it so far. I also think if we're relying on caffeine to wake us up, it's a slippery slope to 'needing' that on a regular basis to function, instead of attempting to address restorative sleep (which has so much more positive health benefits compared to - well anything!), but I also know that for many people it's an absolute pleasure. A mindful cuppa promoting relaxation and having a little bit of 'me' time is a good thing, so really it's individual. There's conflicting health evidence in the literature, so as long as you know what you're consuming and why, and if it works for you, why not? For me, a couple of squares of dark choc will give me a caffeine kick and it tastes so much nicer in my opinion ;)
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