Many of us get our day started with a cup of joe—over 80% of us, in fact. Everyone from students to professionals swears by it, claiming that they wouldn’t get nearly as much done had they not had help from caffeine, usually by way of coffee. But we haven’t always been this obsessed with coffee. According to the National Coffee Association, daily consumption of espresso-based drinks alone has tripled since 2008. It has become the most widely used stimulant drug in the entire world.
Caffeine’s effect in our bodies is actually quite simple:
“Cyclic AMP gives your body energy. Phosphodiesterase is an enzyme that breaks down cyclic AMP. Caffeine blocks phosphodiesterase. So cyclic AMP stays around longer when you have caffeine in your blood, and you have more energy. It comes from the natural substances that your body produces and always give you energy; they just last longer.”
Therefore, caffeine doesn’t influence us like other stimulants, it merely enacts by temporarily blocking a substance in our brains that makes us prone to fatigue. In that respect, it works. When caffeine is ingested, studies have shown that respondents exude more energy, stronger physical, cognitive, and motor performance, as well as improved short-term memory and easier concentration.
But is it really working for us?
It makes us productive by enabling our natural energy to last longer, and oftentimes has been linked to similar side effects as Adderall. We are more productive because we are alert for a longer period of time, but it does not add anything that we cannot naturally achieve. Coffee does not enhance creativity—which has often been heralded as a function of a wandering brain—but many creatives have sworn by the stuff. Honoré de Balzac loved the effects of coffee so much that he took it by the spoonful, often on an empty stomach.
A reliance on coffee does not also come without a price, since it’s addictive as any other drug. Studies have shown that a regular intake of caffeine can lower one’s tolerance, cause significant drops in ability to fall asleep, and even increase restlessness throughout the night, often preventing a person to enter REM sleep. Giving up caffeine is also tricky, as many experience headaches, depression, irritability, and an upset stomach, amongst other things. Sandra Bullock once said, “I gave up coffee. It’s almost worse than giving up a lover.”
Caffeine, however, is not the miracle drug some claim it to be. In a study done at the University of East London, those who thought they were drinking regular coffee but were given decaf proved to work quicker and with more accuracy than those that had been given regular coffee but were told they were drinking decaf. Thus, if we are to follow what the study suggests, it is not the actual caffeine that helps us, but our own ability to will the desired effects we believe to be experiencing.
Whether you start your day off with some java or only drink the occasional espresso shot, there is no denying that caffeine has significant effects on our performance, brain, and overall health.
Perhaps Jerry Seinfeld summed up the essence of what a cup of coffee does for us when he said:
“I think the answer is we all need a little help, and the coffee's a little help with everything — social, energy, don't know what to do next, don't know how to start my day, don't know how to get through this afternoon, don't know how to stay alert. We want to do a lot of stuff; we're not in great shape. We didn't get a good night's sleep. We're a little depressed. Coffee solves all these problems in one delightful little cup.”
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