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How Coffee Benefits Our Body, Mind and Brain

Coffee and Our Body, Mind and Brain

How Coffee Works

Caffeine has been described as the world’s most widely consumed psychostimulant.

Every year around 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide and apparently 90% of Americans start their day with a cup. No wonder that coffee is the largest food import and the second most valuable commodity after oil in the States.

Given our global love affair with coffee, are there any benefits from enjoying our caffeine?

The short answer is yes. There is even some suggestion that coffee works as a cognitive enhancer.

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Coffee and Our Body, Mind and Brain

How Coffee Benefits Us

Breaks

Alertness

We are more alert when we consume caffeine.
Compassion

Dopamine

Coffee is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. 
Gratitude

Neuroprotection

Caffeine protects our brain from cognitive decline as we age.
Choice

Antioxidants

Coffee is high in antioxidants – it’s true!
Exercise

Memory

Drinking coffee enhances memory after learning.
Green Space

Social Connection

Coffee provides us the means to connect socially.

How Coffee Can Benefit Us

Alertness

Caffeine is a stimulant: it works on our brain by speeding it up. So yes, we are more alert when we consume caffeine, which can be great for our focus and productivity.

The peak effect on our brain occurs 15 to 45 minutes after drinking the coffee and the total effect lasts around two hours.

How Coffee Can Benefit Us

Antioxidants

You may have read that coffee is high in antioxidants and that’s true. However so are many other foods with a far higher nutritional value, so also look for your antioxidants in those great cognitive boosters such as leafy greens and deeply pigmented berries.

How Coffee Can Benefit Us

Dopamine

Coffee increases our dopamine levels in our brain. Dopamine is the brain chemical linked to our reward circuitry and associated with motivation and pleasure.

 Caffeine reduces the re-uptake of dopamine by the brain, so we feel good and naturally want to extend that feeling for longer. Meaning, coffee is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and happy.

How Coffee Can Benefit Us

Memory

One study published in Nature Neuroscience showed that consuming 200mg of caffeine (one strong cup of coffee) enhanced memory consolidation after learning for up to 24 hours in a group of people aged 18-30 years. The effect wasn’t seen with 300mg, so there appears to be a dose effect.

How this works isn’t known. It could be to do with paying better attention or it might be something to do with lessening the forgetting effect. Either way, it’s encouraging to think we’re doing something good for our brain.

There have also been studies showing improved memory performance and cognition in 65yr old women who drink three or more cups of coffee a day. The U.S. study showed how coffee, by its influence on increased neuronal firing, leads to increased short-term memory skills and reaction times.

How Coffee Can Benefit Us

Neuroprotection

The caffeine in our coffee is looking to be a promising means of protecting our brain from cognitive decline as we get older.

A special supplement of 22 articles was produced in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease called “Looking at therapeutic opportunities for caffeine in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.” These articles found that: 

  • Caffeine has multiple beneficial effects assisting to normalise brain function and prevent neurodegeneration.
  • Caffeine has been shown to reduce beta-amyloid production and is neuroprotective.
  • Caffeine may be looked at further as a potential disease-modifying agent for Alzheimer’s disease.
  • The adenosine A2A receptors have been identified as the main target of neuroprotection afforded by drinking coffee.
  • Epidemiological studies corroborated by Meta-analyses suggest caffeine may have some protective effect against Parkinson’s disease.

While these studies have suggested coffee drinking to be neuroprotective this is NOT a cause and effect scenario. Drinking coffee won’t prevent you from developing a neurodegenerative disorder but the good news is that drinking three cups a day (especially if you are a woman aged 65-80) has been associated with a lower risk for dementia.

It appears that a little of what you fancy can indeed do you good.

    How Coffee Can Benefit Us

    Social Connection

    Coffee has been part of our social set up for hundreds of years, from its earliest beginnings (when first harvested in Ethiopia in the 10th century) to the coffee-houses that started to emerge in the mid-1600s in Europe.

    Coffee has retained a unique place in our society as a means to connect socially. Some ways coffee connects us include:

    • We arrange to meet our friends for a coffee catch up.
    • We stop for a well-earned coffee after our Saturday morning bicycle ride with our cycling colleagues distinguished by our lycra garb and strange shoes.
    • We shout our work colleagues a coffee, to take a mental break during the workday.
    • We seek out a good coffee before going in for a looooong work meeting or attending a workshop.
    • We hold business meetings in cafes to establish new working relationships and share a coffee as we talk about our new program, project or proposal.
    • We hold workplace-based meetings and (hopefully) ask participants and guests if they’d like coffee first. This is seriously a good move as research has shown that drinking coffee before starting a group activity increases individual participation and focus. It was also found that drinking coffee led to individuals ranking themselves and their co-workers as more alert putting them in a better frame of mind, talking more and staying on topic.

    The social benefit of coffee is real. If drinking coffee and or working in a cafe makes you feel good, more socially engaged and happier then that has to be a good thing.

    Top Tip

    Busy Day? Try a Coffee Nap

    While this might sound a complete oxymoron, it works.

    The caffeine in our coffee takes about 20 minutes to kick in. So, drink up and then set your alarm to take a 20-minute power nap to keep you in the light phase of sleep. On waking you then have the double bonus of the sleep’s cognitive refreshment plus the heightened alertness from the coffee. Ka-boom!

    But remember the ideal time is probably shortly after lunch so as not to interfere with normal sleep.

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    Coffee and Our Body, Mind and Brain

    How Coffee Can Harm Us

    Breaks

    Addiction & Withdrawals

    We become addicted to that quick fix we appear to get from drinking coffee.
    Choice

    Adrenaline

    Caffeine stimulates the release of adrenaline, one of our stress hormones.
    Compassion

    Sleep

    Caffeine interferes with your ability to have good quality sleep by reducing deep sleep.

    How Coffee Can Harm Us

    Addiction & Withdrawals

    It’s true: we become addicted to that quick fix we appear to get from drinking coffee.

    If you’ve ever experienced caffeine withdrawal symptoms, you’ll know just how unpleasant these are. They are a potent reminder that caffeine is indeed a drug with withdrawal leading not only to a nasty headache but also greater fatigue, an increase in blood pressure, a reduction in cerebral blood flow and difficulty in focusing.

    You may have heard of people telling you they get a caffeine withdrawal headache if they miss their coffee or try to cut down. That’s because the caffeine causes blood vessels to dilate. Remove the caffeine and the blood vessels constrict, which can cause a nasty headache.

    If you’re looking to cut down on coffee, you may also suffer from aches and pains, extreme tiredness and depression during the period of withdrawal. It can take several days to get over the worst with reduced alertness and slower reaction times.

    However, by day 6 or 7, your body will have recovered, your blood pressure is like to be lower, you may have less anxiety, be sleeping better and be functioning mentally just as well as when you had been drinking coffee.

    How Coffee Can Harm Us

    Adrenaline

    It’s a good idea to go easy on your total daily caffeine consumption as too high a dose is linked to some unpleasant physiological symptoms. That’s because caffeine stimulates the release of adrenaline, one of our stress hormones.

    When the caffeine in our coffee speeds up our brain’s rate of firing, the pituitary gland can detect the increased rate of brain cell activity and presumes there is an emergency happening somewhere. This results in the flight or fight response being initiated, with the adrenal glands pumping out adrenaline to fire us up.

    How Coffee Can Harm Us

    Sleep

    Many people find that they can’t drink coffee late at night as it keeps them awake. This is because caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours. This means the cup of coffee you drink at 3 pm will still have 50% of the caffeine exerting its alerting effect at 9 pm.

    This in itself is not a huge problem. Many of us can get to sleep even with a significant amount of caffeine still in our system.

    However, during the day, our brain releases an increasing amount of an inhibitory neurotransmitter called adenosine. This works to gradually suppress neuronal activity preparing us for sleep at the end of the day.

    We need the adenosine to slow our brain cells down when we want to sleep. The caffeine interferes with your ability to have good quality sleep by reducing deep sleep, which we need for good brain function.

    If you’ve noticed caffeine interferes with your ability to sleep, it’s recommended to keep your coffee drinking to the earlier part of the day or reduce your intake.

    Myth Busting

    Coffee Doesn’t Give Us a Mental Edge

    While coffee helps us to get alert and ready, it doesn’t necessarily improve our mental performance.

    Researchers at the University of Vermont and John Hopkins School of Medicine published a paper in 2009 demonstrating the physiological effect on our brain of quitting caffeine. The study revealed that those people who drink coffee regularly have no mental benefit or advantage over those that don’t, despite those of us who like to think it helps give us the edge.

    In fact, once the effect of the caffeine and the adrenaline has worn off, we are likely to be feeling more tired and a bit flat.

    So, how much coffee should we drink?

    While coffee has its benefits, we need to make sure we don’t have so much coffee that we impair our brain fitness and mental performance.

    Moderation is the way to go and individual tolerance varies. Sticking to about 300 – 400 mg of caffeine per a day (that’s three to four cups) is fine for most people.

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