Caffeine – Keeping you going AND keeping you sane?

If you believe that even a bad cup of coffee is better than no cup of coffee at all (thank you David Lynch for the quote) then you’ll not be surprised that research suggests caffeine offers a range of health benefits.  Professional and recreational athletes – healthy people, surely? – use caffeine to help improve and sustain performance. For many people, that cup of coffee is their ultimate energy snack to get them going first thing in the morning.  Research also suggests that drinking caffeine may help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease in later life.

We know that too much caffeine  can be a problem and a latte has probably never been described as a healthy snack. 

But are you surprised we don’t talk more about the potential benefits of caffeine for our mental health?  Perhaps because what we do today won’t so much have an effect tomorrow, but more like in 20-30 years time.  For those of you who don’t know where you’re going to be next month, never mind next week, this is probably too long term a game to even think about.  But in health terms we reap as we sow – and unfortunately when we have caused enough damage to actually suffer disease and symptoms, it’s often too late to undo the wrongs and make them right.  This is particularly true in conditions like Alzheimers Disease.

The key message we can take from the research is that moderate caffeine consumption – your daily cup of coffee or pot of tea – may reduce your risk of cognitive decline, particularly if you are female (sorry guys – the research results are inconsistent for men).   The science behind the theory is understandably complex, but let’s see if we can provide a simplified version.

In the brain and nervous system we have receptors – when we produce neurotransmitters and other chemicals they bind to these receptors and that causes something to happen like a movement, production of a hormone, or some other physiological function.  Think of the receptor as a lock and the neurotransmitter and other chemicals as a key.  There are lots of different types of receptors – they work in different ways, bind with different chemicals and cause different things to happen.  One type of receptor is for a chemical called adenosine.  When adenosine binds to its receptors it can have a calming effect – it causes our cells to preserve energy.  So it makes sense that anything that stops that binding is likely to have the opposite, or stimulating, effect.  This is what caffeine does – it prevents that binding and has a stimulating rather than calming effect.

It’s logical why it’s useful for athletes and for making us feel perked up in the short term.  Rather than shutting cells down, they get fired up.  But this doesn’t explain the protection against brain function decline in the longer term – that’s all to do with how the pathways in our brain grow and develop over time.  It appears that via these adenosine receptors, caffeine helps us develop more redundancy in the pathways in the part of our brain associated with memory.  If you think of those pathways as a set of roads then it makes sense that having a greater choice of routes between two places improves your chances of making the journey, even if some of the roads get blocked or aren’t usable.

There’s not yet any definitive advice about how much caffeine could achieve this protective effect .  Research is still trying to confirm exactly how it works, what dose is relevant, and what causes this protective effect in some people but not others.  Should we be discouraged from drinking too much coffee?  Well there are many reasons why we should be careful about our caffeine intake – its affect on adrenal function, sleep, and blood sugar balance to name but a few.  So enjoy your daily cuppa like other things in life, in moderation. [credit for the cartoon goes to]

  • Ann White
  • 23 May 2013

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