Everybody has experienced a morning without their coffee, and we all know that those are the worst. We consume it for many different reasons. From helping us wake up in the morning to keeping us up late at night, caffeinated drinks have become a part of billions of daily routines. Two of the three most consumed beverages in the world are chock full of caffeine. Why has this strange chemical taken the world by storm? 

Coffee cup filled with Roasted Coffee Beans
A coffee cup filled with Roasted Coffee Beans

Coffee: A Brief History 

There are many different origin stories of how coffee originated. The most popular is of an Ethiopian goat shepherd over a thousand years ago. The Shepard noticed that his animals became particularly energetic after eating a specific type of berry. After reporting his findings to a local monastery, a monk made a drink from the berries and noticed that the drink kept him awake through the long evening prayers. After sharing this discovery with other monks and monasteries the coffee beverage began to spread.  

Chocolate Bars
Chocolate Bars

How it Works 

In its purest form, caffeine is a component of many things, from coffee to chocolate. It works by blocking your brain from recognizing the signs of tiredness. Our brain has millions of tiny receptors which recognize chemicals from our body saying, “I’m sleepy.” The caffeine molecule has a similar structure to the molecules that make you sleepy (adenosine). It works to clog these receptors in our brain before our sleep molecules can. Therefore, our body is telling our brain it’s ready for bed; but the brain isn’t recognizing those signals.

Caffeine Molecular Structure
Caffeine Molecular Structure

Effects of Caffeine 

Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world. And, it does several things we find beneficial. It wards off drowsiness, increases concentration, and increases our feelings of well-being. Some evidence suggests that regulated amounts can have long-term benefits, like consolidating learning or reducing the risk of depression. Some research even suggests it can reduce the risk of cognitive disease. 

However, unregulated amounts of daily caffeine can also have negative side effects. Too much caffeine can increase anxiety, restlessness, cause jitters, and headaches. These effects are often called “coffee intoxication.” Caffeine, like any other drug, is addictive, but why? The more caffeine we consume, the more regularly our brain’s sleep receptors are clogged with caffeine. And, because of this, our body needs to make up for its inability to signal the brain by adding more brain sleep receptors. When you go off of caffeine, your brain has an excess of sleep receptors, and you experience withdrawal symptoms. Such as feeling sleepy often, headaches, muscle pain, and difficulty concentrating. Large amounts of caffeine can also intensify mental health problems. 

The good news: Small and regular amounts of caffeine aren’t likely to cause any sort of long-term damage to your body. Just be aware of what side effects it can have and talk with your doctor if you feel they are interfering with your life. Also, remember that our bodies are always changing. As we age, your normal 1 cup a day could start contributing to side effects you’re not used to experiencing.

By Timandra Rowan


American Psychological Association

National Coffee Association

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