Caffeine – a widely consumed substance, present in most of our favorite beverages (tea, coffee, soda and energy drinks) is perhaps the most freely marketed addictive substances in the world. And, there’s probably more research done on caffeine than on any other subject and yet there is a lot of confusion as regards caffeine and its effect on the mind.
Surely, I am not the only one who needs a little caffeine jolt every morning to get going. A cup of coffee would contain about 60-70mg of caffeine and this amount is enough to reduce my early morning grogginess and temporarily improve the mental alertness and energy levels. Innumerable research studies have shown that depending on level of intake, caffeine can help to improve mental performance, alertness, attention and concentration. The fact that a mug of coffee can improve wakefulness and enhance memory has been long established and have proven especially helpful for sleep deprived, over stressed and fatigued minds and bodies. So what is the hullabaloo?
The way caffeine impacts our busy brains is not exactly a straightforward story. The reason we get a quick wake up call after chugging a mug of coffee has to do with the way caffeine alters the brain’s natural state and tricks it into the desired ‘ wake- up effect’. The mighty caffeine works as a brain stimulant by blocking receptors for a chemical called adenosine. Normally, when adenosine levels reach a certain point in our brain, our body will start shoving us toward sleep, or at least instructing us to slow down and take it easy. Enter caffeine, the master adenosine impersonator. Caffeine fools our brain to think that it is the real ‘adenosine’, and then blocks the ‘slow down signaling receptors’ and allows the brain-sparking chemicals such as dopamine and glutamates to flow freely—giving us a surge of energy and potentially improving mental performance and alertness.
With time, caffeine gets addictive and as is true of all addictive substances, the amount of caffeine needed to produce mental stimulation increases with regular use. Larger doses are progressively required to achieve the same original effect as caffeine tolerance creeps in. By keeping our brain from using its normal “I’m tired” sensors, the caffeine causes the brain to change the way it regulates release of adenosine and also other mood and energy related brain chemicals.
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Caffeine Tolerance and Withdrawal
As caffeine becomes a regular thing, our brain gets used to working in a certain way and as we keep providing more and more caffeine to the body to feel the same ‘alertness high’ or ‘energy spike’ as we observed the first time we took the sip, our dependence on caffeine increases.
We start to feel caffeine withdrawal very quickly, anywhere from 12 to 24 hours after our last use. Now it must be easier to understand the headache that haunts us in the mornings if we missed our daily caffeine fix. The reasons for the withdrawal are the same as with any substance dependency: our brain was used to operating one way with caffeine, and now it’s suddenly working under completely different circumstances. Most regular coffee drinkers tend to experience the common withdrawal symptoms such as fatigue and depression, irritability, anxiety, jumpiness, deprivation of deep sleep, and vascular headaches, usually at the temples but occasionally at the back of the head or around the eyes.
The risks vary with the level of caffeine intake, gender, age and individual sensitivity. Most of the negative effects of caffeine are not a concern with low-caffeine consumption i.e. about 150mg daily (what exists in 2 cups of coffee). A total of over 500mg of caffeine daily (as in seven or more cups a day) is considered high intake and that level of caffeine consumption could prove potentially harmful in the long run.
Get acquainted with a few scientifically researched facts about caffeine and gauge your risk here.
Tips to Kick The Caffeine Habit
For those who want to give up caffeine, here are tips that shall assist in kicking the habit:-
• It is easier to give up coffee by tapering it off rather than turning cold turkey. Enjoy your mug of coffee but restrict the habit to only 1-2 cups daily.
• Drink loads of water- Start drinking at least 2-3 glasses of filtered water or mineral water preferably on an empty stomach in the morning to facilitate detoxification of the body systems.
• Try substitutes:-Switch to herbal teas, which do not contain any caffeine or have black tea, which has less than half the caffeine present in a cup of coffee.
• Regulate the diet- Try to incline your diet towards an alkaline diet, primarily comprising of steamed vegetables, green salads, soups, fresh corn, whole grains, beans, walnuts, sesame seeds and soya products such as tofu and tempeh. They help to flush off toxins and also enhance energy and mental clarity naturally.
• Add vitamins & minerals to fight the withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, drowsiness, weakness and even depression. Vitamin C along with B-complex vitamins will help balance our energy levels and reduce stress during the withdrawal process.
• Some minerals especially calcium, magnesium, zinc and potassium also foster the detoxification process and help to kick the caffeine habit.
• Start taking regular walks, doing breathing exercises, or indulging in fun outdoor activities and exercises. The endorphins released will keep you happy and away from caffeine.
Remember, an addiction to caffeine is not as vicious as an addiction to other drugs and if you are reading this article, then you have taken the first step of recognizing the problem. If you like drinking caffeinated beverages, go ahead and enjoy them, but only in moderation.
Written by- Panchali Moitra
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