Is there any relation between coffee and focus? The more caffeine is studied, the more we can see the connection between improved brain performance, longevity, and caffeine consumption. But what are the effects of caffeine on the brain?
After all, it seems there might be a strong reason why most hard-working moms, entrepreneurs, and early-waking students swear by coffee. Although the acute caffeine punch makes him very lovable, the benefits of coffee extend far beyond a short boost in focus.
- Psychoactive Stimulant
- 6 Effects of Caffeine on the Brain
Caffeine is a potent stimulant from the methylxanthine class that works on boosting our cognition. It has a half-life of 3-7 hours, which means half of the caffeine stays in our blood after ingestion for over 3 hours, depending on how quickly we can metabolize it. (1) Why is that important? To understand why we need to stop consuming it after 2-3 PM, or else it will disrupt our sleep.
Caffeine is best known for its alertness-promoting effects, especially under suboptimal situations. It can increase focus, sharpness, processing, speed, vigilance, and reaction time. It’s no wonder why we love it.
But caffeine is present in numerous plants around us, not just coffee. Yep, it’s in different fruits, guarana, tea leaves, and beans of cacao. It’s even present in dark chocolate, energy drinks, green and black teas, gotu kola, etc. (2)
This is why quitting caffeine after 2:00 PM is so hard. If we’re unaware of caffeine-rich foods, we can easily slip into consuming too much caffeine. A simple example – I had 2 blocks of dark chocolate before bed last, night. Guess how I slept? My Aura ring wasn’t impressed with my REM sleep, let’s cut it there.
6 Effects of Caffeine on the Brain
Caffeine effects extend far beyond a quick cognitive boost. It can alter the level of certain neurotransmitters, thus heavily impacting our mood. It can fight fatigue and increase energy, plus act as a potent antioxidant and even protect our brain from neurodegeneration. Let’s dive in.
A review named “Is caffeine, a cognitive enhancer?” (3) highlights caffeine’s effectiveness, which was able to:
facilitate learning in passively presented tasks:
- improve working memory performance
- improve cognitive performance under suboptimal alertness
- improve reaction time
- affect mood: at low doses reduces anxiety, at high it increases it
- may protect the brain from cognitive decline
Focus, Alertness, and Concentration
The first and most obvious benefit of caffeine is improving our focus, especially under suboptimal situations where we lack alertness due to poor sleep, caffeine can mask fatigue and make us cognitively sharper.
As we create energy, more adenosine binds to the adenosine receptors (AR). This signals fatigue, we’re tired and we need to go to sleep to replenish our brain energy.
The main mechanism behind how caffeine works is binding to AR and therefore blocking the Adenosine receptors. This happens due to the similar structure of caffeine to adenosine. They look like twins, so caffeine can act as an antagonist to adenosine receptors. This masks fatigue and stimulates the central nervous system. (4)
Even at low (40 mg) to moderate doses (300 mg), it exerted an ergogenic effect, thus improving alertness, attention, reaction, and vigilance. (5)
Improving cognitive performance can also enhance physical performance. This is how caffeine’s effects extend far beyond just a simple boost in focus. It can improve physical endurance and reduce fatigue. (6)
By blocking the adenosine receptors it improves concentration, alertness, vigilance, and reaction time. It’s one of the most potent psychoactive stimulants consumed in the world
Ergogenic: Energy and Fatigue
As shown above, caffeine is present in teas, sodas, and energy drinks. People love it, and it’s the reason why companies add caffeine to their energy drinks and pre-workout supplements.
Caffeine exerts an ergogenic effect, acting as a psychoactive stimulant. This can be effective in fighting fatigue and drowsiness and enhancing processing speed and both short-term and long-term memory. (7) (8)
In a study that tested how morning caffeine can affect memory, mood, and reaction time, the results were interesting. Although caffeine did slightly increase anxiety, it also increased vigor and reduced simple reaction time. (9)
Caffeine doesn’t work on a fundamental level to increase energy, but rather, is good at masking fatigue. Its ergogenic effect is quite potent for fighting fatigue and drowsiness while improving brain performance.
Mood: Stress and Anxiety
Our mood is heavily affected by the level of neurotransmitters that circulate in our brains. Specifically, levels of catecholamines like dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.
Caffeine has a potent mood-boosting ability. It can act on the dopaminergic system, which can improve behavior, depression, and ADHD in animals. Its stimulatory effect partially relies on its ability to suppress GABA – an inhibitory neurotransmitter. (10)
One of the largest studies on the risk of depression and coffee is the SUN project. It included 14,413, depression-free, middle-aged participants and used (FFQ) food-frequency questionnaire. Results showed that those drinking at least 4 cups of coffee had a lower risk of depression. (11)
Although caffeine was shown to not increase dopamine in the striatum, it was effective at enhancing dopamine signaling by affecting receptors affinity. (12) And dopamine is the “satisfaction” or “motivation” hormone, which we all like to have more of.
Caffeine, by enhancing the levels of certain neurotransmitters like dopamine, may alter positive mood and behavioral changes. Caffeine consumption is associated with lower rates of depression.
Cognitive Decline and Neuroprotection
As we age, our brain shrinks, we experience poor memory, weaker focus, and cognitive decline is just a matter of time. But can caffeine offset this?
A large prospect study involving 47,351 men and 88,565 women showed that there was an inverse association between caffeinated coffee and Parkinson’s, but not with the decaf version. In women, the relationship was U-shaped meaning more coffee isn’t better. The lowest and highest coffee drinkers had weaker results. The lowest risk was in those drinking 1-3 cups daily. (13)
Another meta-analysis shows that the risk of Alzheimer’s disease lowers with coffee consumption. (14) For Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – it was shown to be beneficial in both women and men due to its anti-inflammatory effects, at doses of 3-5 mg/kg. (15)
Coffee has potent antioxidant-like effects, which may protect our brains from oxidative stress. If we understand cognitive decline, we can see a lot of it depends on neural inflammation. If caffeine can offset this with its anti-inflammatory effects, it may slow down cognitive aging, right?
Coffee has different neuroprotective properties that may reduce neurodegeneration. Chlorogenic acid present in coffee may have a role in reducing neurocognitive decline. (16)
Coffee may exert an antioxidant-like effect, thus reducing oxidative damage in the brain. This may translate into not just better cognition, but reduced development of neurodegenerative diseases. There’s an association between coffee consumption with lower ND risk, mostly at moderate doses.
Performance: Reaction, Execution, and Processing
Optimizing productivity is about making your brain sharper. But what does that mean? Increase the speed of reaction, information processing, and execution. Now that’s sharp – and it seems coffee can assist with this.
We’re not talking about IQ over 200 points, no. We’re talking about supporting cognition, enhancing memory recall, accelerating information processing, and increasing attention span. Have you ever watched Lucy? That is a brainiac-level cognition.
- Caffeine can improve executive function, alertness, and visual attention – being most effective at doses of 200mg. (17)
- In soldiers with sub-optimal sleep (4 hours) repeated caffeine ingestion at 200mg improved psychomotor vigilance and event-detection speed. In total, 800 mg of caffeine was pretty effective at maintaining wakefulness. (18)
Caffeine can make your brain sharper, literally. It has been shown to improve attention, processing speed, memory recall, executive function, and alertness.
Memory: Short-Term, Long-Term
Memory is created through experience. It’s about strengthening the neural networks that learned something. Every time you ride a bike, you recall a group of neurons that control that movement, so it runs smoothly.
To 30 participants, caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee was given. The group having caffeine showed improved memory, hypothesized to be due to its dopaminergic activity which allows better neural signaling. (19)
Caffeine given to students during their non-optimal time aka early morning showed strong improvements in explicit memory. (20) I almost lost you didn’t I? Explicit memory is the memory we’re consciously trying to recall, or retrieve from our brains.
Tested at 0, 200, or 400mg in 95 young adults, caffeine exerted different effects based on dosage. 200 mg effectively improved mathematical tasks, reduced boredom, and increased anxiety. Memory-wise, moderate or high doses improved the number of words they were able to recall. (21) Just like a proper stimulant.
Caffeine has been shown to improve memory, especially short-term memory during non-optimal sleep schedules. It may improve calculation, explicit memory, and spatial (working) memory.
Coffee as Antioxidant: Longevity, Heart and Brain Health
No coffee discussion is final without the overall effect coffee can have on longevity, health, and vitality. So far, caffeine seems to be correlated with better brain health and longevity.
Coffee can act as a potent antioxidant. Certain by-products of coffee like xanthine and theobromine may exert both prooxidant or antioxidant effects. (22)
Theobromine is known to aid in supporting cardiovascular health, increasing energy, and positively affecting mood. Along with xanthine, they’re both known to work on respiration, potentially by increasing the diameter of the bronchia, leading to better airflow.
Some studies even show coffee consumption may lead to a lower risk of diabetes type 2, a better cholesterol profile, and lower inflammation. (25)
It seems that the sweet spot for coffee consumption to enhance longevity may be around 2-3 cups of coffee daily. It’s like a U-shaped curve, too much or no coffee seems to not be as effective. The reduction of mortality was 14% for decaf, 27% for ground, and 11% for instant coffee. (26)
Coffee is one of the most potent psychoactive stimulants frequently consumed in the world. It works by blocking the adenosine receptors, thus masking fatigue. Components of coffee like theobromine, chlorogenic acid (CGA), and caffeic acid may exert some anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties. Caffeine improves alertness, vigilance, reaction time, and processing speed, especially in sub-optimal situations (poor sleep). It can improve short-term memory recall, and learning and it is even linked to longevity.