Caffeine: Friend or foe?

Coffee is a favourite of many because it enhances one’s performance levels. DR BRIGID MONDA shows you how to take your favourite drink without risking your health

Many of us just love that rich aroma and taste of coffee, that ‘buzz’ it gives, that great taste of tea but we are unaware that we are taking caffeine, a mind altering drug and it’s addictive.

Caffeine occurs naturally in many plants, including coffee beans, tea leaves and cocoa nuts and is consumed in one form or another every single day. It is found in a wide range of food products like coffee, tea, cola, chocolate and is added artificially to many medications.

Caffeine is an addictive drug because it operates using the same mechanisms like that cocaine and heroin use on the brain, with caffeine having milder effects of course.

A molecule called adenosine is created in the brain and it binds to adenosine receptors on the cells slowing down their activity and causing drowsiness. This makes adenosine important for sleep and especially a deep one.

Caffeine also increases dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical nerve transmitter that activates the pleasure centre in the brain. That’s why you feel good after taking caffeine but low after it wears off.

Once the adrenaline wears off you become fatigued and depressed and you take more caffeine to get the adrenaline rush going again. This means that your body will be in constant ‘a state of emergency’ all day long which is certainly not healthy.

Stay awake longer

The most important long-term problem is the effect that caffeine has on sleep. If you consume a big cup of coffee with 200 mg of caffeine in it at 4pm, then you will still have at least 100mg of caffeine in your system by 10pm.

You stay awake longer, shortening the amount of sleep you get, and giving you less time in the restorative stages of sleep, which takes a toll on your level of alertness the next day and this deficit adds up fast.

The next day you feel worse, so you need more caffeine as soon as you get out of bed to ‘wake’ you up and the vicious cycle continues.

Tired and depressed

Even worse, if you try to stop taking caffeine, you get tired and depressed with a terrible, splitting headache. These negative effects force you to run back to caffeine even if you want to stop and you become a certified caffeine addict. If you are hooked, you’ll notice physical withdrawal symptoms like headache, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, lack of appetite, listlessness, depression and a strong urge for your favourite beverage.

Caffeine increases the body’s levels of cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’, which can cause weight gain, moodiness, heart disease and diabetes. Increased cortisol levels in the blood causes stronger cravings for fat and carbohydrates, and causes the body to store fat in the abdomen and abdominal fat carries with it greater health risks than other types of fat.

Also, high cortisol levels lead to stronger cravings for caffeine-laden foods and the body goes into a cycle that leads only to worse health. Other effects of caffeine on the body are an increase in your blood sugar and pressure, irregular heartbeat, worsened symptoms of PMS and peptic ulcers.

The good news, though, is that caffeine can speed up metabolism and can help the body break down fat about 30 per cent more efficiently if consumed prior to exercise. It enhances physical performance and endurance if it isn’t overused and this, combined with its effect of fat burning during exercise, can actually enhance workouts.

Caffeine also keeps blood sugar levels elevated, leaving you feeling less hungry.