Coffee & the Brain

For many of us, coffee kick starts our day and gives us the boost we need to get through our work. As a stimulant, it helps us to focus better and enhances our cognitive ability through releasing excitatory neurotransmitters. When we ingest caffeine, we are able to react more quickly, can pay attention even when completing long tasks, and acts as a good pick-me-up when we feel drowsy.

Coffee makes us feel good; but is it good for our brains, especially in the long term?

The literature on whether coffee is harmful or a nootropic (drug that helps to enhance brain functioning) is largely positive. Research has even found that consuming caffeine long term is helpful in preventing cognitive impairment and decline. When mice were given a dosage of caffeine equivalent to 5 cups of coffee a day, they were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Consuming caffeine also has a positive impact on your mood; studies have found that drinking coffee daily decreases risk of depression and suicide. On the other hand, it can make you feel more anxious, although this effect is mainly found in populations who already suffer from anxiety issues and in people who consume high doses of caffeine (ie. exceeding the maximum recommended amount of 5 cups a day).

It has been found that caffeine of up to 200mg in one go or 400mg in a day does not lead to harmful health consequences – this is equivalent to 2.5 cups in one go or 5 cups in a day. If consumption is kept to this dosage, caffeine intake is not harmful even in older adults. However, there is a small proportion of people who are particularly sensitive to caffeine. In these individuals consuming even small dose of caffeine can lead to difficulty in falling asleep, anxiety, and increased heart palpitations. Detecting your own sensitivity to caffeine and limiting intake to low doses earlier in the day – lower than the maximum recommended amount, consumed long before bedtime – is a helpful strategy to adopt in this case.

There are few other instances where caffeine may be harmful. In children and adolescents, consuming large amounts of caffeine can profoundly impact the quality and length of their sleep. Getting enough sleep is important for them to be able to stay alert in class and complete academic tasks, and consuming too much caffeine is likely to interfere with this. In a way this problem can be viewed as a cycle, where a sleep-deprived adolescent consumes high doses of coffee to stay awake in class, not realising that this same dosage may be causing their sleeplessness at night.

Consuming caffeine through beverages such as energy drinks or sweetened coffee may be harmful not because of the caffeine per se, but because of the excessive amounts of sugar that the beverage may also contain. High amounts of sugar intake have been linked to mild cognitive impairments in older adults, and is well established to contribute to chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes.

If you feel like your caffeine intake is interfering with your daily functioning and sleep, and is looking to reduce your consumption, here are some tips that may help:

  1. Reduce your intake gradually. Just like how coffee can give us an incredible boost in the morning, weaning quickly can result in the very symptoms that you’re looking to avoid in the first place – migraines, drowsiness and inability to focus. Hence, the best way is to not go from 5 to 1 cup a day, but to decrease it over a number of days or weeks. Switching to tea is also a good option – you can have your same 5 cups a day but at the same time more than halve your caffeine intake.
  2. Brew your coffee weaker. If you make your own coffee at home, add water or milk to your coffee to get a weaker brew. If you choose to buy your coffee, opt for an espresso shot, which usually has only half the amount of caffeine of a regular cup. Be wary of sugar loaded coffee drinks though!
  3. Try other types of hot beverages. For many, it is comforting to start their day with a hot cup of coffee. If you think it is the hot beverage that you crave and not the caffeine, try different types of tea instead, or better yet, go for decaffeinated coffee.
  4. Find other ways to get that midday pick-me-up. Instead of instinctively going down to the coffee cart or heading to the break room for the midday coffee, grab a healthy snack (fruit, nuts) instead and go for a walk – just getting up from your desk and taking a walk may help you feel more refreshed than you would expect.