Effects of Coffee on Your Brain

May 9, 2013

drinking coffee

Each coffee bean varietal contains a slightly different chemical composition, giving each of the different coffee beans unique flavours and strengths. Coffee is one of the world’s most popular beverages, and although most people don’t think of it this way, it is also a mild psychotropic drug. A significant amount of scientific research has been done on the effects of coffee on the human brain, and the good news is that these effects are mostly benign, or mildly beneficial. Understanding how coffee works, and how it alters the neurochemical functions of your brain, can be the key to getting the most out of one of your favourite indulgences.

Coffee is often thought of as an ‘upper’ or a mental stimulant, but this isn’t precisely true. As your brain works, it is constantly producing adenosine, and after a certain amount of time you begin to feel tired. Your brain monitors adenosine levels, and uses them as a meter to judge when you need to recharge by sleeping. What caffeine does is block the adenosine receptors in your brain, which allows natural stimulants such as dopamine and glutamate to keep doing their job. The effect is similar to that of a stimulant, but the process is more subtle. The feeling of being awake, or ‘wired,’ that results from this process often lasts for five or six hours.

Health Benefits

The most obvious effect of coffee consumption is increased cognitive performance. Caffeine can improve your short term memory, and also has been shown to increase the rate at which people can perform simple cerebral tasks. The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t improve subtle or abstract thinking. Your intelligence isn’t affected by drinking coffee, but because you are more alert you can perform simple tasks more efficiently.

There is evidence that the positive effects of coffee on cognitive performance can last for the long term as well. People who are regular coffee drinkers often perform better on tests that measure reaction time, incidental verbal memory, and visuospatial reasoning. These results are more pronounced with elderly test subjects. This is because coffee can help protect your neurons from hydrogen peroxide-induced cell death.

Another side effect of coffee consumption is that it reduces the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Overall, the effect of the beverage on your brain’s ability to function is a positive one.

Health Risks

Although most researchers agree that coffee is a fairly benign drug, there are some health risks associated with its consumption. If you drink coffee regularly, you will quickly build up a tolerance to its effects. This means that you will need to consistently increase your rate of consumption in order to achieve the same result. It is possible to reach a point where you are dependent on coffee in order to function normally.

As well as coffee dependency, there is such a thing as coffee withdrawal. Headaches are the most common symptom of withdrawal for people who get into the habit of drinking coffee frequently, but fatigue, irritability and nausea are often experienced as well. People drink coffee in order to function at a higher level, but after you develop a dependency, going too long without a drink of coffee can actually have the opposite effect.

Coffee consumption can also prevent you from sleeping properly. Studies have shown that people who drink coffee in the evening have a harder time falling asleep, and suffer from a reduction in the quality of sleep they do get.

When Should You Drink Coffee?

The best time to drink coffee is probably in the morning. You can reduce the negative effects of coffee on your sleeping patterns by not indulging in the evening. For people who are frequent coffee drinkers, it is a good idea to time your consumption so that you drink coffee before you perform any important tasks. You don’t want to be suffering from coffee withdrawal while writing an exam, or when you need to concentrate on a difficult task at work, for example.

Some people choose to drink coffee infrequently and strategically. You can maximise the effect of coffee by drinking it once a week, or less. This way you won’t develop a dependency, and can get the full benefit of a coffee buzz when you need it the most. Frequent coffee drinkers who want to try this approach will need to break their habit first, but the good news is that for most people this shouldn’t take more than ten days.

If you don’t feel up to the task of regulating your coffee intake this way, take heart. You might be dependent on caffeine, but it’s a dependency that comes with positive long term effects on your ability to function cerebrally.


Image Credit: James Foreman