America runs on caffeine. There is a Starbucks on every street corner, and every gas station in the US comes stocked with seemingly infinite ways to get caffeinated.
Caffeine is the ambrosia that makes today’s hustle culture possible, making it inconceivable to imagine our world without it. But is caffeine really a miracle drug that helps Americans conquer sleep, or is it a crutch that robs people of a hard-earned rest?
Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant present in various foods and beverages such as coffee, tea, energy drinks, and chocolates. It is a popular and widely consumed psychoactive drug, with one study finding that 87 percent of adults consume caffeine daily in one form or another.
While caffeine is known to have some positive health benefits—such as enhancing cognitive performance and reducing the risk of certain neurodegenerative diseases—it also has negative effects that can harm one’s health in the long run.
Positive Health Impacts of Caffeine
Enhances Cognitive Function
College students often operate with an endless IV drip of caffeine, and for good reason: Caffeine has been found to enhance cognitive performance generally, with attention, alertness, and memory benefiting particularly. Research suggests that caffeine consumption significantly improves cognitive function and decreases fatigue.
Moreover, adults of all ages can experience these benefits: Caffeine has been found to have a positive effect on cognitive performance in both young and elderly adults, improving reaction time, attention, and memory. These positive benefits are likely due to caffeine’s ability to block adenosine receptors in the brain, which instigates a cascade of neurotransmitters that are involved in cognitive performance. There is only so much a “smart drug” can do for you, but caffeine can certainly help when cognitive performance is your goal.
Enhances Exercise Performance
Gym culture and caffeine consumption go hand in hand, and science provides us with some compelling reasons why this is the case. Caffeine has been found to improve physical performance by increasing endurance, reducing fatigue, and increasing muscle strength. Therefore, athletes of all kinds can benefit from the stimulative effects of caffeine.
The positive effects of caffeine on exercise performance may be due to several reasons, including its ability to increase fat oxidation, decrease muscle glycogen utilization, and stimulate the central nervous system. So, if you are looking to set a personal record on the track or in the gym, caffeine may be your secret weapon.
Reduces the Risk of Some Neurodegenerative Diseases
Caffeine may also help people to stay sharp as they age, as it has been found to have neuroprotective effects, such as reducing the risk of developing various neurodegenerative diseases. One study conducted on a large population of elderly individuals found that regular caffeine consumption was associated with a reduced risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Additionally, caffeine has been found to improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The neuroprotective effects of caffeine may be due to its ability to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, which are thought to contribute to the development of neurodegenerative diseases. If your goal is to keep your mind spry as you age, pair your crosswords and brain exercises with caffeine.
Negative Health Impacts of Caffeine
Disrupts Sleep Patterns
Unfortunately, caffeine is not a miracle drug and comes with its own collection of negative side effects. For starters, many people know that consuming caffeine too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. However, research suggests that caffeine consumption to any degree affects sleep.
A study conducted on 50 participants found that caffeine consumption significantly reduced total sleep time and sleep efficiency among users. The negative effects of caffeine on sleep are due to the same reasons that caffeine increases cognitive and physical performance: blocked adenosine receptors and increases in several neurotransmitters.
Can Lead to Dependence
Many of us have learned the hard way that caffeine is a mildly addictive substance, and regular consumption can lead to dependence. If you have not experienced this directly, you can likely understand secondhand by simply looking at the line at your local coffee shop. Withdrawal symptoms—such as headaches, fatigue, and irritability—may occur when caffeine consumption is reduced or eliminated.
Moreover, tolerance to the effects of caffeine can develop over time, leading individuals to consume higher amounts of caffeine to achieve the same effects. The addictive nature of caffeine can lead to negative consequences—such as decreased productivity and impaired decision-making—when individuals are unable to consume caffeine regularly.
Can Lead to Increased Blood Pressure
Caffeine can lead to increased blood pressure, especially in individuals who are sensitive to its effects. A study conducted on 15 individuals found that caffeine consumption significantly increased blood pressure in those with hypertension. Moreover, caffeine consumption has been associated with an increased risk of developing hypertension in some studies.
The negative effects of caffeine on blood pressure may be due to its ability to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to the constriction of blood vessels and increased heart rate. If you are sensitive to the effects of caffeine or already experience high blood pressure, it would be advisable to avoid caffeine consumption.
Many productive societies rely on caffeine for that extra boost. Caffeine—the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug—offers a host of positive and negative effects. The positive effects of caffeine include enhanced cognitive function, improved exercise performance, and a reduced risk of some neurodegenerative diseases. However, the negative effects of caffeine include potentially disrupted sleep patterns, physical dependence, gastrointestinal issues, and increased blood pressure. Individuals should be aware of both the positive and negative effects of caffeine and consume it in moderation to avoid potential health risks.
A version of this article was published by The Daily Herald. It has been republished here with permission.