Many of us consider caffeine as a delightful addition to our daily routine. It is sometimes celebrated, sometimes scorned. Both a saviour and an aggressor. Caffeine is the most commonly ingested psychoactive substance globally, yet it is mostly misunderstood. But what is caffeine?
Caffeine is a natural stimulant that belongs to a class of compounds called xanthines. It is found in various plants, most notably in coffee beans, tea leaves, cacao pods (used to make chocolate), and kola nuts (used in some soft drinks). Different cultures have ingested these plants worldwide for centuries, sometimes millennia, as they were prized by various cultures for their power to bestow "vitality" upon people.
And good on you if you're intelligent enough to understand this, but its chemical structure is C8H10N4O2, and its systematic name is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine.
Plants produce caffeine as a natural defence mechanism to deter herbivores, with its bitter taste acting as a pesticide. However, studies have shown that caffeine can improve bees' memory, helping connect sweet nectar with the flowers of coffee plants and any others that have caffeine. This, in turn, ensures their return and aids the plants in their quest for pollination. All across the globe, certain plants all evolved to have it independently. This phenomenon is known as convergent evolution. Below is a list of some of the most famous plants to contain caffeine.
Most people get their caffeine kick by drinking it. Either in coffee, tea or soft drinks. Once consumed, caffeine is absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and intestines. It takes approximately 30-60 minutes for the effects to kick in. Caffeine does not actually wake you up but instead tricks your brain into believing you are not tired.
Throughout the day, your brain creates a neurotransmitter called Adenosine. This neurotransmitter interacts with neurons in our brain, instructing us to eat, drink, or use the loo. Adenosine is what provokes drowsiness and promotes sleep. Our neurons identify various neurotransmitters because they have distinct shapes that attach in different ways, similar to a lock and key relationship. Interestingly, caffeine and Adenosine have almost identical chemical structures. Caffeine binds to the neurons and blocks Adenosine, causing the brain to stop producing it, resulting in increased alertness.
It is this little trick that has ensured the enduring popularity of caffeine.
The Health benefits of caffeine have proved hard to pin down. However, studies are increasingly showing that caffeine can benefit treating both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. It has also shown potential as a preventative aid to both these conditions. Here are some of the potential benefits of caffeine consumption:
It's important to note that the benefits of caffeine can vary from person to person. Every one of us metabolises caffeine differently. Individual tolerance to caffeine can also play a significant role in how it affects you, so it's essential to be mindful of your response to caffeine and adjust your consumption accordingly.
Unlike the health benefits of caffeine, the adverse effects of caffeine have been known for some time. Consuming too much caffeine can lead to various unfavourable effects, and individual tolerance to caffeine can vary widely. The negative consequences of excessive caffeine intake can include:
What constitutes excessive caffeine intake can vary from person to person, but generally, consuming more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day (equivalent to about four cups of brewed coffee) can increase the risk of experiencing negative side effects. Individual tolerance to caffeine can also change over time, so paying attention to how caffeine affects you and adjusting your consumption accordingly is important. If you have any underlying medical conditions or concerns about caffeine's impact on your health, it's advisable to consult with a healthcare professional.
The caffeine content of coffee can vary widely depending on several factors, including the type of coffee bean, the brewing method, the serving size, and the brewing time. These variables make it challenging to gauge how much caffeine is in any given cup of coffee. Here are some approximate caffeine levels for common types of coffee:
It's important to note that these figures are approximate and can vary based on many factors. Additionally, coffee shop servings can vary in size, so the caffeine content in a coffee shop drink may differ from standard measurements.
Yes, too much caffeine can indeed be toxic and even lethal. But the good news is that it's hard to do through coffee alone. Any cases of fatalities have involved caffeine pills or medications that contain caffeine. Reaching toxicity means ingesting 10g of pure caffeine, equating to drinking between 50-100 cups of coffee in one day. While some days may make us feel like consuming that amount is necessary, in reality, it isn't easy to do. The current advice is for adults to consume no more than 400mg per day, with that number falling to 200mg if you're pregnant.