Many of us want (or should I say need?) our morning coffee to give us our “get up and go”. In total, the world’s people drink more than two billion cups of coffee every day (opens in a new tab).
You may think that coffee gives you the energy to get you through the morning or day, but coffee may not give you as much energy as you think.
The main stimulant in coffee is caffeine. And the main way caffeine works is by changing the way our brain cells interact with a compound called adenosine (opens in a new tab).
get busy, get tired
Adenosine is part of the system (opens in a new tab) it regulates our sleep-wake cycle and part of why high levels of activity lead to tiredness. As we go about our days and do things, adenosine levels increase (opens in a new tab) because it is released as a byproduct as energy is used in our cells.
Eventually adenosine binds to its receptor (opens in a new tab) (parts of cells that receive signals) that tells cells to slow down, making us feel drowsy and drowsy. That’s why you feel tired after a big day of activity. while we sleep, energy consumption falls (opens in a new tab) reducing adenosine levels as it is mixed back into other forms. You wake up in the morning feeling refreshed. Well, if you get enough sleep, that is.
If you still feel sleepy when you wake up, caffeine may help, for a while. It works by joining the adenosine receptor (opens in a new tab), which you can do because it has a similar shape. But it’s not nearly as similar to triggering the drowsy slowdown signal as adenosine does. Instead, it just fills in the gaps and prevents the adenosine from binding there. This is what prevents the feeling of sleepiness.
Laurits Regner Tuxen. Danish artist, 1853-1927. Serving morning coffee, 1906. pic.twitter.com/PwftbbSyaQJanuary 22, 2023
no free ride
But there is a catch. While it feels energizing, this little caffeine intervention is more of a borrowing from the feeling of wakefulness, rather than a creation of new energy.
This is because the caffeine won’t bind forever (opens in a new tab), and the blocking adenosine does not disappear. So eventually, the caffeine breaks down, loosens the receptors, and all the adenosine you’ve been waiting and building up gets hooked and the drowsy feeling comes back, sometimes all at once.
So the debt you owe to caffeine must always be paid off, and the only real way to pay it off is to sleep.
timing is everything
How much free adenosine is in your system, which hasn’t yet attached to the receptors, and how sleepy you are as a consequence, will affect how much caffeine you drink to wake you up. So the coffee you drink later in the day (opens in a new tab)when you have more sleepy cues, your system may feel more powerful.
If it’s too late in the day, the caffeine can make it hard to fall asleep at bedtime. The “half-life” of caffeine (the time it takes for one half to break down) is about five hours (opens in a new tab). That being said, everyone metabolize caffeine (opens in a new tab) differently, so for some of us the effects wear off more quickly. Regular coffee drinkers may feel less of a “hit” from caffeine, with tolerance (opens in a new tab) to the stimulant that accumulates over time.
Caffeine can also raise cortisol levels (opens in a new tab), a stress hormone that can make you feel more alert. This could mean that caffeine feels more effective later in the morning, because you already have a natural rise in cortisol when you wake up. The impact of a coffee just out of bed may not seem so powerful for this reason.
If your preferred caffeinated beverage is also sugary, this can exacerbate the rush and crash. Because while sugar creates real energy in the body, the free sugars in your drink can cause a spike in blood sugar, which can make you feel tired when the the dip comes later (opens in a new tab).
While there is no proven harm from drinking coffee on an empty stomach, coffee with or after a meal (opens in a new tab) I could hit you slower. This is because food can slow down the rate at which caffeine is absorbed.
Read more: Does coffee burn more fat during exercise? What the evidence tells us (opens in a new tab)
How about strong tea or fizzy cola?
Coffee, of course, isn’t the only caffeinated drink that can give you some energy.
Caffeine in tea, energy drinks, and other beverages still affects the body in the same way. But, since most of the ingredients come from plants, each caffeinated beverage has its own profile of additional compounds that may have their own stimulating effect (opens in a new tab)Or it can interact with caffeine to change its effects.
Caffeine can be helpful, but it’s not magic. To create energy and revitalize our bodies, we need enough food, water, and sleep.
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