It’s easy to overlook how potent caffeine is, but it’s the most widely used drug in the entire world. In fact, 8 out of 10 Americans consume caffeine daily (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). While it is not technically a nootropic in that it doesn’t offer any nourishment value for the brain, it is a stimulant that can lead to greater focus and alertness.
It essentially does this by blocking certain neurotransmitters that can create a relaxed mental state. It also helps to boost certain brain chemicals that are associated with the fight or flight response, creating a more alert mindset.
The risks of relying on caffeine.
When looking into various ways to boost mental fitness and alertness, caffeine consumption is often at the top of many lists for the average consumer. It is certainly effective, but there are a number of risks associated with it.
There has been a great deal of controversy, especially in the United States in recent years with regard to caffeine, especially in the form of energy drinks. Many of these energy drinks contain a significant levels of caffeine that have been linked to fatalities as a result of consuming too much in a short amount of time. The FDA issued warnings about excessive caffeine consumption, especially for individuals who have heart related problems (FDA, Nov. 2012).
The feeling one gets when drinking caffeine.
Consuming caffeine, whether it’s in coffee, tea, soda, or an energy drink, the feeling that it creates in the body is similar to a boost of mental energy. The individual may feel more alert, more awake, and able to focus better. It is directly connected with an acceleration of critical thinking.
There have been numerous research studies that indicate caffeine consumption can boost accuracy at work, critical thinking skills, and alertness. However, it is also associated with headaches, fatigue, and nausea, especially during a withdrawal period.
What does the research support?
A study conducted in the United Kingdom of over 9,000 adults 18 and over looked at various aspects of each of these individuals with regard to caffeine consumption. The researchers were looking at lifestyle habits that included diet and exercise, how much caffeine these participants consumed on a daily basis, and how it impacted their cognitive abilities, memory, and even visual-spatial reasoning (Jarvis M.).
What the researchers discovered was that there was improved cognitive performance directly connected to specific caffeine dosages. In other words, not long after an individual consumed caffeine, he or she would note some cognitive improvement in their ability to think critically, to problem solve, and more.
What was interesting to note about this particular research study was that caffeine seems to impact older individuals more than younger and the researchers contemplated that this may be linked to age-related cognitive function.
In other research studies, different amounts of caffeine consumption determined varying impacts that it had on participants. In other words, the amount of caffeine somebody consumes at any given time may impact certain mental functions differently, but what most of the studies determined was any excessive consumption of caffeine (such as greater than 400 mg per day) did not add any benefit cognitively (Ruxton, CHS).
Finally, a significant research study determined that caffeine consumption is not conducive to motor learning. This particular research study (Mednick, SC, et al) compared caffeine consumption of 200 mg per day with a 60 to 90 minute nap and a placebo. It found that consuming 200 mg of caffeine had a significant impact and impaired motor learning comparative to the placebo and subjects who napped.
What does this tell us?
It essentially indicates that caffeine is a stimulant that can help boost immediate cognitive focus and function, but it isn’t going to provide any real long-term benefit, especially with regard to improved memory and mental performance.
How does caffeine impact mental performance?
There are several ways caffeine negatively affects mental performance. While it certainly provides a boost in mental energy, it can actually reduce brain function and power over a long-term period of time.
It does this in several ways.
Caffeine may cause “Adrenal Exhaustion.” Because caffeine is a stimulant, it often calls for an increased production of adrenaline in the body and this can, over time, overwhelm the adrenal glands. Certain symptoms of Adrenal Exhaustion can include extreme fatigue, depression, headaches, and certain other symptoms that make it difficult to focus and think clearly.
Caffeine also constricts the blood vessels in the brain. In fact, a 250 mg dose of caffeine can reduce cerebral blood flow by 27% (Addicot, Yang, et al).
Caffeine is often linked with irritability and anxiety. This is especially true when caffeine consumption is considered ‘excessive.’ When somebody is consuming too much caffeine, they are not going to be gaining any greater cognitive benefit in the short term, but it has the potential to cause them to feel overstimulated and that can impact their mood, making them irritable and that is often directly associated with poor mental performance.
Caffeine is addictive.
It’s easy to dismiss the notion of caffeine being addictive, especially when it is so prevalent, but there are some studies that indicate as many as 30% of caffeine users may be addicted right now (Griffin RR, Chausmer AL).
The addictive nature of caffeine lies in its ability to boost the production of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a pleasure and reward hormone and when the brain is no longer receiving caffeine, it can go through various withdrawal symptoms that can inspire the individual to feel the need for more.
Common side effects.
Most people who consume caffeine on a daily basis, especially coffee drinkers, usually understand some of the most common side effects associated with caffeine. These can include feelings of nervousness or jittery tendencies, shakiness, stomach problems, heart palpitations, muscle tremors, headaches, and insomnia.
What to take away from all this.
When you’re looking for brain boosting supplements, or nootropics, what you should take away from this particular assessment is that caffeine is not going to offer any real long-term mental benefit. It is a short-term solution that can provide increased focus and mental alertness.
For those looking for something healthier that will provide them long-term benefits, caffeine is certainly an ingredient to avoid. For those who may be consuming caffeine on a daily basis already, it may be prudent to begin weaning off this powerful and addictive stimulant.
Keep in mind, it’s not just energy drinks that pose a serious risk of becoming over caffeinated. A Starbucks Venti coffee contains 410 mg of caffeine, which is at least the same, if not more, than many energy drinks on the market. Consuming just 2 cups of this coffee can lead to excessive caffeine consumption and potentially serious risks.