Caffeine is a drug. Because it is so astonishingly ubiquitous (somewhere around 90% of people in North America consume caffeine on a daily basis), and because use of caffeine generally comes with out stigma, it's easy to forget that we are regularly putting a substance in our bodies that has a huge and cascading impact on our bodies' systems. Far from being stigmatized, consistent caffeine consumption is socially reinforces and encouraged. But falling into this habit can be dangerous...
Here's why: Consistently consuming caffeine without managing its effects on the body will lead to lower energy levels, increased inflammation and diminished cognitive performance, among other undesirable effects.
Don't mistake me for a puritan - I love getting high on caffeine from time to time. Beyond that, caffeine can be of tremendous value when used strategically as a nootropic (brain-enhancer) or workout aid. The key is knowing how to use it strategically such that you maximize your benefits without falling into a habitual use cycle that is energy and performance-draining.
Why Caffeine Is Awesome
Used in specific circumstances, caffeine can have powerful beneficial effects. This will certainly be a case of stating the obvious for a lot of you, but it's worth saying again: caffeine can have a powerful effect on certain aspects of athletic performance. Studies have correlated caffeine with both increased endurance and increased muscular power output. This translates to higher-quality training sessions and, assuming proper recovery, greater gains in strength and fitness (and all of the energy, body composition and performance gains that come with it).
Unsurprisingly, caffeine also has been correlated with improved cognitive performance. Both short term memory and systems processing have been shown in studies to improve on low-to-moderate doses of caffeine.
My own opinion on caffeine's cognitive performance benefits is slightly more esoteric. My experience is that caffeine makes it easier to hop into "flow states" associated with organization and creativity. This isn't the right place for a full explanation on flow states, but I recommend checking out the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the pioneer of flow state theory. It is the best model I know of to understand the psychological states of high-performance (athletic, artistic, productive, etc.).
Finally, caffeine is also fun. What more really needs to be said here? When used properly, caffeine can be a great recreational drug with minimal negative impact.
So how do we maximize caffeine's benefit as a performance enhancer (or recreational drug) while minimizing it's negative effects? First we have to understand what caffeine is doing to our body when it works its magic.
How Caffeine Affects The Body
Essentially every process in our bodies is governed by a complex network of signaling chemicals. The most important among these are neurotransmitters (for the brain, nervous system) and hormones (essentially every other cell in the body).
Caffeine produces it's effects through specifically altering the action of a few of these hormones and neurotransmitters. First and foremost, caffeine binds to adenosine receptors throughout the brain and nervous system. Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it suppresses the level of activity of neurons it interacts with. As such, adenosine has been correlated with promoting sleep and relaxation and suppressing arousal. Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors, blocking them from performing this function. All the other biochemical, physiological and psychological effects of caffeine come as a result of this primary mechanism of action.
Once adenosine function is suppressed, it starts a cascade within the body in which the function of several other hormones and neurotransmitters is altered. Most significant here, is the effect on our adrenals, the glands that sit on top of our kidneys that produce and secrete the hormones epinephrine ("adrenaline") and cortisol. These are often referred to as the "fight or flight" hormones, as the are released in times of stress. When they are circulating in the body, heart rate and respiration rate increase and smooth muscle relaxes, preparing us for quick action. Caffeine stimulates the adrenals to dump large amounts of both of these hormones. Studies have found moderate caffeine doses to increase circulating epinephrine by more than 250%. Effectively, caffeine is simulating a stress response in our bodies.
Caffeine also increases circulating serotonin in certain parts of our nervous system, which accounts for part of the antidepressant and mood-elevating properties of caffeine.
It's important to note that the effects on adenosine, epinephrine and serotonin are just the three most prominent mechanisms of action for caffeine. Dozens of other hormones and neurotransmitters are effected by caffeine consumption.
Why This Can Be A Problem
When neurotransmitters or hormones are released, one of two things happens: they are taken up (for future re-use) by the types of cells that excreted them -or- they are broken down by enzymes that circulate in the blood plasma. How often each of these two things happens varies greatly depending on the chemical and circumstance, but one thing is always true: a significant amount of the neurotransmitter or hormone will be degraded by enzymes after release.
This means that when caffeine stimulates higher circulating levels of epinephrine or serotonin, a portion of it will be broken down and the body will be forced to produce more to replace it.
For a healthy body this isn't an issue when it happens infrequently. Occasional, isolated dumps (and resulting losses) of hormones are not a big deal. The body will have plenty of surplus hormones in reserve until it can replace what was lost. It is when we force our endocrine (hormone) system into this cycle of release-breakdown-production on a daily basis that system can fall behind and create problems such as fatigue or dependency.
How Caffeine Compounds These Problems
Consistently using caffeine to provoke dumps of epinephrine and serotonin means the body will constantly need to be producing new hormones and neurotransmitters to maintain proper functioning of these systems. The production of hormones is a complex process involving a number of base materials, enzymes and coenzymes. If any of these components is limited in supply, hormone production will be suppressed.
Caffeine negatively impacts this process in two ways. Iron absorption is suppressed and circulating levels of certain B-vitamins are decreased. Both iron and B-vitamins act as coenzymes at certain steps in the synthesis of several hormones and neurotransmitters (including serotonin and epinephrine). Having less of these two nutrients available makes it harder for your body to replace the hormones lost to degradation during a caffeine high.
This topic goes to the core of theory behind the Synchro Life Design system. It's my belief (and a well supported one) that the body feels and performs best when the system is stable and consistently well supported. Any time we ingest something that causes a dramatic change in metabolic, hormonal or neurological activity, our body has to adapt to that change - and more importantly, adapt to the cessation of that effect. A healthy body is resilient and can adapt to an isolated dramatic change quite well and return to equilibrium. When we ask our bodies to consistently enter these cycles of metabolic (or other) activity, it will become taxing.
This is the same core theory behind using high-quality fats as the body's primary fuel source instead of carbohydrates (as I wrote about in SLD #9). Fats convert into energy much more stably and consistently than carbohydrates, and as a result the metabolism benefits from not having to constantly adapt to spikes and falls in blood sugar (and thus, usable energy) characteristic of a carb-dominant diet.
The same principle applies to caffeine. Repeated spikes and falls in serotonin and epinephrine (and other chemicals) as a result of caffeine consumption is taxing for the body over time.
The deficits in hormone production explains part of this taxing effect, but I don't believe it explains all of it. My opinion is that the more meaningful impact is a psychological one. Cycles of physiological highs and lows take a toll on us mentally and emotionally as much as they do physically. This relates to the well-known tendency for people to be several times more likely to remember a negative experience at a restaurant than a positive one. For whatever reason, most people tend to calibrate their overall sense of well-being more with the lows than the highs. This can become a negative-feedback cycle of sorts, as when we perceive ourselves as being less well, that has a negative impact on our actual physiological well being. Keeping your metabolic and psychological systems stable makes this discrepancy in reality and perception less likely and less dramatic. As a result, we experience our bodies as being in a better state of well-being.
Maximize The Benefits And Minimize The Harm
- Don't Use Caffeine Every Day - This really should be #'s 1, 2 and 3 on this list. Giving your body days off to replenish depleted hormone and neurotransmitter levels is key to making sure you don't get into a cycle of hormone debt. Exactly how often you personally should ideally consume caffeine is for you to determine, but the idea is to never feel like you need it just to achieve some acceptable level of performance. If this is the case, you're in too deep.
Find Your Dose - The idea here is to find the minimum amount of caffeine you can consume to achieve the performance enhancing effects. At higher doses, the beneficial effects tend to reach a point of diminishing returns, but the effects on your hormones and neurotransmitters tend to become more severe. Finding the minimal effective dose will keep you from hitting this point.
If you're a daily caffeine drinker, this dose is likely a lot lower than you think. In a world where double-shots of espresso and 16oz coffee are the standard, caffeine doses have gotten unnecessarily high. To find your perfect dose, I recommend taking a few days off to let your system reset and then incrementally consuming small amounts every 20 minutes over the course of an hour to find the point where you get the effects you want from coffee (and be honest!). For reference, my perfect, performance-enhancing dose is between 30 and 50mg (about 1/3 to 1/2 12oz drip coffee).
Support Your Hormones! - Even is you follow the two techniques above, you'll still be placing higher-than-normal demands on your hormone and neurotransmitter systems. So support them! a. Micronutrients - As I mentioned above, synthesis of hormones involves a huge number of nutrients. Making sure your body has more-than-adequate levels of these nutrients available will help make sure your body replenishes hormones and neurotransmitters as fast as possible. This comes in-part from eating nutrient-dense foods, but as I've written about previously, it's my opinion that we need to supplement our diets to achieve optimal levels of many nutrients. See Part 3 of the supplementation series for more on this.
b. Detoxifiers - Perhaps the single biggest impediment to optimal hormone production and function for most people is exposure to toxins that disrupt these processes. Keeping these toxins out of your body is obviously step #1, but neutralizing the toxins that make it into your body is even more important. Eating foods that are powerful toxin-neutralizers will protect your endocrine system from disruption. Of course, Synchro Genesis was formulated for exactly this purpose. Combining exceptional loads of antioxidants and active detoxifiers with the blood-flow-stimulating power of raw cacao means Synchro Genesis detoxifies deeper and more powerfully than almost anything else on the planet.
c. Endocrine Supporters - Some functional plant foods contain phytonutrients that have been shown to support the endocrine system in producing and regulating hormone function. Maca Root is the best studied and most widely used of these natural hormone supporters (which is why we've included it in Synchro Genesis).
- Caffeine Alternatives - Cacao (unprocessed chocolate) contains a compound related to caffeine known as theobromine. Where caffeine works primarily on the central nervous system (via it's action on adenosine receptors), theobromine is a cardiovascular stimulant. Theobromine stimulates blood flow throughout the body, including to the brain. Because increased blood flow is delivering more nutrients and oxygen to the brain, alertness will increase. The stimulation from theobromine is far less demanding on the hormones and neurotransmitters, and thus more sustainable. It is Raw Cacao that gives Synchro Genesis its stimulating and mood-lifting power.