How Caffeine Gives You “Energy”

Ever wonder how that cup of coffee gives you your “pick-me-up”?

This is how:

When a person ingests caffeine, the caffeine molecule travels in the blood, up to the brain and plugs a hole (receptor) that is SUPPOSED to be filled with adenosine (a brain chemical).  Adenosine’s job is to slow the speed that neurons fire in your brain.  This slows your thinking down to the proper speed, and prevents your brain from speeding out of control.  When adenosine is doing its job, you can think calmly, clearly, and thoroughly.

However, when caffeine plugs this receptor, it blocks adenosine from getting in, and as a result neurons begin to fire quicker, and quicker, and quicker, AND QUICKER, AND QUICKER!!

This is what we feel as the “jolt” of energy from drinking caffeine.

How Your Body Interprets This

Your body interprets this extreme increase in brain activity as panic or stress.  In caveman days, if we all of a sudden saw a tiger coming after us, this is exactly what would be going through our heads: oh crap, oh crap, OH CRAP, OH CRAP!!

In response to this stress, your body turns on your “stress response”, also known as your “Fight-or-Flight response”.  Below I describe what happens when you’re stress response is activated.  You will see that caffeine gives you your “shot of energy” by inducing panic in your body.

What Happens When You Activate the Stress Response?

When your body senses stress, your adrenal glands start pumping out our stress hormones.  The purpose of these stress hormones is to help you cope with and survive the stressful time.  Below is a breakdown of what happens.  Keep in mind that this system was originally designed to give you energy to run from impending mortal danger (chasing tiger):

The part of caffeine that we like:

  • Liver releases extra sugar into your blood (fuels your brain which gives you immediate physical and mental energy)
  • Dopamine and adrenaline levels rise (these are your “action & focus” brain chemicals, giving you the focus and clarity to find a way out of danger)

These 2 things give you your quick jolt of energy.  This feeling is the feeling that million of Americans have become addicted to and have made a part of their everyday lives.  This is also why people drink caffeine “so they can focus”.

The bad part people don’t realize:

  • Stress response causes cortisol levels to rise
  • Caffeine blocks your body from producing melatonin (required for deep, restful sleep)
  • Your body must now deal with the unused excess blood sugar (since we are sitting at a desk, not running from danger)

The result of these not-so-nice things is below:

(also click here to see what stress does to our bodies and sex drive):

Excess Blood Sugar:

Since we are not physically using all that extra blood sugar that our liver was told to release, your body needs to do something with it.  The pancreas releases insulin to remove the sugar from of your blood.  However, very often the pancreas releases too much insulin, causing too much sugar to be removed from your blood.  This causes a blood sugar crash (blood sugar levels far below normal levels).  In this situation, your brain is starving for sugar, it’s only fuel, and so you feel tired, irritable, depressed, anxious.  This is normally when people reach for another cup of coffee or soda.  Also, most of the extra sugar gets stored as fat.  Fun, fun!

Caffeine Blocks Melatonin:

Melatonin is a hormone that puts us in a deep restful sleep at night.  The point of sleep is not just to get enough (which most people don’t do), but also to get quality sleep.  Low melatonin prevents you from getting into the deeper phases of sleep (Deep and REM sleep).  The result is that you wake up the next morning feeling tired and sluggish.  It’s because you didn’t get restful sleep, even if you got enough “sleep time”.

Click here to learn how important good sleep is and how to get it.

Elevated Cortisol Levels:

There are entire books written about the long term health consequences of chronically elevated levels of cortisol.  Cortisol is being extensively researched right now because it is becoming evident that cortisol levels could be responsible for the degenerative effects associated with aging.  Cortisol literally eats away at our bodies.

Elevated cortisol levels:
Stress Hormones and Sex Hormones- How caffeine works in the body and why caffeine affects stress.

So What is the Typical Pattern of Caffeine Use/Abuse?

There are two actually.

One is over the course of one day:

  • A person feels tired and in need of energy
  • They drink a caffeinated beverage (or the popular “X – Hour energy”)
  • Stress Response is activated
  • Blood sugar spikes, adrenaline and dopamine levels rise, person starts to feel good
  • Blood sugar crashes, causing the person to need energy again
  • Person reaches for another caffeinated beverage

The other pattern is over the course of a few days:

  • A person feels tired and drinks caffeine throughout the day to compensate
  • Caffeine prevents the person from getting quality sleep
  • Person wakes up more and more tired everyday
  • Person reaches for more and more caffeine to compensate

And around and around we go.

Click here to see how much caffeine there is in your favorite products.

What’s The Main Takeaway?

I personally don’t drink coffee or caffeine products, but if you do, you don’t have to quit.  Just follow some rules.

1.) No caffeine after 1pm.  This will reduce the chances that stimulants are not in your body by bedtime (yes, it takes THAT long)

2.) Try to brew your own, and using organic coffee.  Coffee beans are THE most heavily sprayed crop (pesticides), and you don’t want that stuff in you.  This can also allow you to brew a combo of regular and decaf each time to wean yourself off of coffee (if that’s a goal of yours).  Start with 25% decaf beans & 75% regular beans, try that for 2 weeks, then increase your decaf bean percentage.

3.) DO NOT use quick energy drinks (X-Hour Energy, etc).  They claim to be “full of vitamins and nutrients”, but when you look at the label, its another “put trace amounts in just so you can claim it on the label” trick.  And they have a TON of caffeine in them.

Karl Pilz

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Karl Pilz

Getting a litle Verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves...

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