When it comes to coffee, the daily habit of enjoying a cup or two affects us in many ways. Not only does it wake us up, help us feel energised and serve as a gateway to social connections with fellow coffee lovers, but also, due to the compound called caffeine, coffee impacts our health. The latest research on caffeine effects shows that in many cases, caffeine can be extremely useful, providing us with more benefits than we’ve ever thought possible.
What Is Caffeine and How Does It Work?
Caffeine is a bitter, odourless, white, stimulating substance that occurs naturally in nuts, seeds and leaves of more than 60 plants that are native to Africa, East Asia and South America. These include the most common and well-known sources of caffeine, such as:
- Coffee beans
- Tea leaves
- Cacao pods
- Kola nuts
Most of us consume caffeine in the form of coffee or tea on a daily basis in order to prevent drowsiness, increase our focus and improve our cognitive performance. Synthetic (manufactured) caffeine is also added to various soft drinks or energy drinks, as well as some foods and medications, for example, painkillers.
Caffeine is used quite widely because of its beneficial effects on the human body. Moreover, it’s been a large part of our social culture for centuries now. Caffeine acts as a stimulant and can help improve both mental and physical functions. It stimulates the brain by blocking the neurotransmitter called adenosine and, in turn, reducing the feeling of tiredness. The ability of caffeine to block adenosine receptors can be observed even when very low doses, such as a single cup of coffee, are consumed. This substance also stimulates the central nervous system, giving the body and mind a sense of alertness and a powerful energy boost. Because caffeine affects the brain, it’s often classified as a psychoactive drug.
How Long Do the Effects of Caffeine Last?
Caffeine is very fast-acting: it starts affecting your body and brain within as little as 10 minutes after consumption and peaks in 30 to 60 minutes. As it’s generally consumed in liquid form, it’s metabolised quickly and sent directly to the bloodstream and the brain — that’s why we tend to feel a rush of energy and experience an increase in our heart rate quite quickly after consuming a caffeinated drink.
When it comes to the question of how long the effects of caffeine last, it all depends on how long this stimulant stays in the body. Quick absorption and speedy metabolic processes may make it seem like caffeine leaves your body just as quickly as it has entered it. However, many factors affect the speed of caffeine absorption, so this varies from individual to individual. Typically, in the case of healthy individuals, caffeine has a half-life of 3 to 5 hours. The term “half-life” refers to the time it takes for the body to eliminate half of the substance. The remaining half can stay in the body for a period of time that is significantly longer.
Are you looking to find out exactly how long caffeine stays in your system? Well, that’s difficult to say. The rather wide range of caffeine’s lasting effects is explained by a variety of physiological and environmental factors that influence its metabolism (e.g., pregnancy, use of oral contraceptives, smoking, altitude, obesity and general health). With each new hour following the caffeine’s peak, its effects become weaker, but it’s good to remember that while most people are fine with a cup of coffee consumed in the afternoon, those who have sleeping issues are generally advised to avoid drinking coffee at least 6 hours before sleep, as this can trigger sleeping disorders and disrupt rest.
Caffeine Benefits: Improved Mood and Brain Function
Several studies have found that exposure to caffeine affects our brain and triggers the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a well-known neurotransmitter, which acts as a messenger between different nerve cells and plays a key role in our perception of pleasure, our thought patterns and our planning abilities. It helps us focus and find things interesting, allowing us to learn new things, perform various tasks with more enthusiasm and, in turn, achieve better results. That’s probably why many people associate coffee drinking with studies, work or other tasks that require focus and concentration.
Caffeine can be an excellent mood booster too! In fact, coffee, cocoa and tea are now being actively researched, as they contain polyphenolic compounds that may have beneficial effects on our mental health, including behaviour, mood and cognition. Recent studies have shown that caffeine has positive effects when it comes to preventing depression or relieving depressive symptoms.
Researchers involved in the field of sociology perceive coffee as a social and interpersonal product that’s rooted deep in our culture and often functions as an indispensable part of our social gatherings. Some sociologists suggest that everyday coffee consumption has a symbolic meaning. In today’s world, the phrase “let’s get a cup of coffee” might just as well mean “let’s have a chat” — this certainly proves that our coffee-drinking rituals are, in fact, all about connection and social stimulation. That’s one reason why, for many of us, daily coffee consumption is associated with positive emotions. As social creatures, humans all over the world view coffee drinking as a very important social ritual. This comforting feeling of connecting to others and belonging to a social group has a positive effect on our psychological health.
Caffeine Benefits: Enhanced Physical Performance and Endurance
As a stimulant, caffeine affects not only the brain, but also the body, providing it with an extra boost of energy when it comes to performing physical tasks. It helps us release energy and use it for our benefit, delaying the feeling of tiredness. Global sports organisations and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) even limit the amount of caffeine consumed by athletes involved in competitive sports, as it can be abused when seeking better results.
Caffeine stimulates the part of the brain that controls muscle activation, allowing us to perform various physical tasks better. In fact, one experiment, which involved cyclists consuming 330 mg of caffeine 60 minutes before exercising, has shown that caffeine is capable of increasing endurance. Although some physical performance experiments focus on the positive effects of higher doses of caffeine, scientists have suggested that low doses of caffeine (1–2 small cups of coffee) can be just as powerful when it comes to team sports, high intensity workouts, resistance exercises and much more. Lower doses of caffeine can improve vigilance, alertness, mood and cognitive processes during and after exercise — moreover, moderate consumption is associated with few, if any, side effects.
Caffeine Benefits: Improved Memory
Current research on the connection between caffeine and improved memory is still too scant to provide any solid conclusions. However, some studies have found that caffeine has a positive effect on our long-term memory. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University used a standard recognition test to compare the memory of subjects who consumed caffeine immediately after studying a series of images with the memory of those who hadn’t. The results revealed that the caffeinated group performed better, which allowed the scientists to draw the conclusion that caffeine enhances certain types of memory — this effect lasts for at least 24 hours after it’s been consumed.
Not only that, but caffeine has also been found to aid in fighting cognitive decline, like that observed in Alzheimer’s disease, and lowering the risk of dementia. To be sure, researchers can’t say for certain if it’s caffeine alone that we have to thank here or if this is due to other mechanisms, like antioxidant capacity and increased insulin sensitivity. Either way, the potential of caffeine for human health is great, both when seen as a preventive measure and when employed as a way to increase our cognitive capabilities.
Caffeine Benefits: Protection Against Heart Disease and Diabetes
Some coffee lovers fear that the stimulating effects of caffeine can increase their heart rate and cause heart issues over time. However, studies have shown that regular coffee consumption might result in the exact opposite. Although coffee does increase the blood pressure, this effect is usually temporary and is minimised over years of regular coffee drinking. If you’re sensitive to caffeine or have other health issues, you should consider this before drinking coffee, but if you’re perfectly healthy, studies show that caffeine consumption has no effect on the risk of developing heart issues. A daily intake of 2–3 cups of coffee appears to be safe and is associated with neutral to beneficial effects for most of the studied health outcomes. Some studies that found coffee to have protective effects on the heart suggest that this may be due to high levels of antioxidants detected in coffee, yet further research still needs to be done here.
There’s more good news here though! Coffee consumption has also been linked to reduced risk of type 2 diabetes: a 2014 study led by the researchers of Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that drinking more than one cup of coffee per day lowers your risk of developing diabetes by 11% over a period of 4 years.
Caffeine Benefits: Easier Weight Management
According to the World Health Organization, cases of obesity diagnosed all over the world have nearly tripled since 1975. Nowadays, obesity is a serious problem and the primary cause of many health issues and diseases prevalent in the Western World. For some people, weight management is an absolute necessity, while others prefer to keep an eye on their weight for general health and looks. Whatever your reason, coffee can help in several ways. First, it can reduce your appetite by affecting the hunger hormones, which are responsible for making you want to eat. The stimulating effects of caffeine are also capable of speeding up metabolic processes, which can lead to you burning more calories than you normally would. That’s why caffeine is often found in weight loss supplements!
Moreover, it’s important to note that coffee itself is very low in calories, so it’s a great choice for those who are trying to manage their weight. Keep in mind, however, that for this trick to work, your coffee must contain no additives, such as sugar, sweeteners, milk, cream, sweetened syrups and so on. They’ll only increase the total amount of calories found in your drink and may cause you to gain weight in the long run, especially if beverages like these are something you consume on the regular. In addition, it’s important to watch out for caffeinated soft or energy drinks — they usually contain lots of added sugars and are high in calories too.
Caffeine Benefits: Healthier Skin
Your skin can benefit from caffeine in a couple of ways. In addition to being a natural stimulant, caffeine is also a strong antioxidant, well-known for its anti-aging properties and ability to prevent age-related diseases. We tend to consume caffeine in liquid form, but there are great effects noticed when applying it topically. Surprisingly, our skin is great at absorbing caffeine, which is why it’s found in multiple skin products, from eye creams to growth-promoting shampoos and products targeting cellulite. It’s been noticed that caffeine also helps fight unwanted redness on the skin, diminishes wrinkles, prevents puffiness and inflammation, as well as repairs sunburnt skin.
When applied on the skin, caffeine makes the blood vessels smaller, hence reducing redness, puffiness and even dark under-eyes circles. Its stimulating properties tighten the skin and smooth it out, while the caffeine’s antioxidant qualities help the skin renew and fight off free radicals. A recent study has also suggested that caffeine might very well offer protection from various types of skin cancer. These effects still have to be further studied and confirmed, but their potential is great.
Another wonderful thing about caffeine is that it’s natural and guaranteed to be tolerated well by all skin types, even the most sensitive ones. It’s also easy to use and widely available, making it a great, affordable addition to your at-home spa.
Caffeine and Headaches: Is Caffeine a Cure or a Cause?
If you tend to experience headaches, caffeine can help. In fact, caffeine is an ingredient in a lot of popular pain relievers. Using regular painkillers, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, together with coffee can help them work faster and be more effective at keeping pain away. Sometimes, if the pain’s comparatively mild, even drinking coffee alone may help!
On the other hand, dedicated coffee drinkers know full well that if they don’t get their daily caffeine fix, a headache is guaranteed to follow. It’s not hard to explain why when you know more about what the effects of caffeine are and how your body responds to this stimulant. In fact, caffeine withdrawal is a serious condition: there are plenty of publications suggesting it should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
When we consume caffeine, blood vessels in our brain start narrowing, and when we stop consuming it, those blood vessels widen again. The resulting blood flow boost can trigger a headache or result in other symptoms characteristic of caffeine withdrawal. It’s hard to say exactly how long caffeine withdrawal will last, as it depends on numerous factors — the timeframe may vary pretty widely and you might continue experiencing the symptoms anywhere from 2 to 9 days. The more your body is used to getting caffeine on the daily, the stronger the withdrawal symptoms will be. If you want to cut back on caffeine, it’s best to do it gradually: if you used to drink three cups per day, cut it down to two instead of zero to minimise the effects caused by the body eliminating caffeine from your system.
As far as studies on caffeine and headaches go, some suggest that caffeine can be a migraine trigger and some have found caffeine to be a migraine cure. However, researchers examining caffeine as a migraine trigger found that consumption of this stimulant has caused migraines for a small percentage of the participants, while all studies focusing on the cure aspect revealed caffeine to be safe and effective in acute migraine treatment, mostly in combination with other analgesics.
All in all, when it comes to caffeine, your body might react in various ways, but the next time you feel a headache approaching, give coffee a try — if the pain is mild or if the cause of your headache is a skipped cup of coffee, caffeine might help calm the pain down!
Caffeine and Coffee: Does It Have a Dehydrating Effect?
It’s a common misconception that caffeine has a dehydrating effect and its consumption should be avoided or reduced to maintain the optimal fluid balance. Although it’s true that caffeine has a diuretic effect — it may cause you to urinate more frequently, and increased urination may lead to dehydration — it’s important to note that this effect is observed only in the case of high doses (≥500 mg) that exceed the recommended maximum amount of 4–5 cups of coffee per day. If you stick to the recommended dosage, however, the diuretic effect will be mild and certainly not enough to cause dehydration.
You should also keep in mind that caffeine isn’t the only ingredient making up a cup of coffee. There’s a bunch of other natural compounds in it too, including antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and water. In fact, a number of studies found that coffee consumed in moderation has hydrating effects that are similar to those of water. This stimulating drink can, in fact, be beneficial to the overall fluid consumption, as it helps transport the necessary nutrients and oxygen across the body to the cells. As a result, those who don’t like the taste of water and hence find it difficult to consume the recommended amount throughout the day can easily and safely increase their water intake with the help of coffee!
Natural Antioxidants and Prevention of Cell Damage
Antioxidants are man-made or natural substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage. The latter can cause a variety of diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, as well as eye diseases, such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. As effective tools of preventing this, antioxidants are vital to human health.
According to the World Health Organization, eating a diet that is rich in natural antioxidants is the healthiest way to prevent aging, as well as the diseases that have been listed above. This is important because the health benefits associated with coffee are usually linked to the high level of antioxidants found in it. Some studies even suggest that coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the Western diet — that’s because it’s simple to prepare and very widely available. While drinking 2–3 cups of coffee per day will probably seem like no big deal to most people, consuming the recommended daily amount of fruit and vegetables seems a bit harder, doesn’t it? It goes without saying that a balanced diet should consist of a variety of foods and numerous antioxidant sources, so having coffee instead of fruit or vegetables isn’t the answer, but coffee can be a great, healthy component of our overall diet.
How Much Caffeine Is Too Much?
Although caffeine is natural, very widely available and consumed by the majority of the population, it is, in fact, a psychoactive, stimulating drug. There’s a certain risk that comes with that and it definitely needs to be considered.
According to the scientists at the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), caffeine can be a part of a healthy diet for most people, but consuming too much of it isn’t a good idea. For healthy adults, the FDA recommends sticking to a safe dose of 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, which equals around 4–5 cups of coffee. That may seem like quite a lot, especially since the Statista Global Consumer Survey performed in 2019 found that, on average, Americans tend to consume only 2–3 cups of coffee per day. However, it’s important to remember that coffee isn’t the only caffeinated drink out there — other products may have caffeine in them too, from soft drinks to chocolate and even various medications.
Moreover, caffeine tolerance varies from individual to individual and depends on many factors, including your health condition, weight and even genetics. Certain people may be extremely sensitive to caffeine, which means that they might have to steer clear of this substance for the rest of their lives. Those who cannot tolerate caffeine or who have simply over-indulged may experience certain caffeine side effects, like:
- anxiousness and increased heart rate
- upset stomach and nausea
- headache or migraines
As a result, it’s best to consider your own personal health before enjoying a cup of coffee, as people who are already suffering from sleep issues, anxiety or high heart rate may make those symptoms worse by consuming caffeine.
When it comes to truly toxic amounts of caffeine that could cause serious health issues or even death, they’re extremely difficult to consume — think 30 cups of coffee consumed in a short period of time. All in all, if you indulge in caffeine, you should do so with full understanding of your personal health and stick to the recommended guidelines. Only then will you be able to benefit from all of the amazing effects that caffeine can provide you with, without worrying about the possible risks.
Caffeine is a widely consumed compound that has many wonderful benefits, as well as certain risks. While most risks and side effects that come with consuming caffeine are largely related to either high doses or pre-existing health problems, certain groups of people must consider the effects of caffeine very carefully and consume this stimulant with those risks in mind.
Nevertheless, for the majority of people, the recommended amounts of caffeine will not only be harmless, but they will also provide them with various health benefits. The list of benefits brought forward by the consumption of coffee and caffeine is far greater than we might have anticipated and includes such amazing effects as prevention of degenerative diseases. Other benefits offered by this substance can help improve the everyday lives of coffee drinkers all over the world, from bettering cognitive functions to boosting physical performance. Knowing all of the above, you can now go ahead and enjoy a cup of delicious coffee — it’s a vital part of a healthy, nourishing diet!