Hooked on Caffeine: Coffee and Your Brain
Like many regular coffee drinkers, I often wake in the morning with the beginnings of a nagging headache and a bleary, blurry feeling. If I try to buckle down to detail-oriented work without coffee, I frequently find myself unable to focus and concentrate.
On one memorable occasion, I found myself reading and re-reading a single sentence over and over and over because I’d forgotten the beginning of the sentence by the time I go t to the end. Granted, it was a fairly complex sentence on an even more complex subject, but when I still didn’t get it after five attempts, I complained to a friend who happens to be a psychologist with experience in the field of substance abuse.
“When’s the last time you had a cup of coffee?” he asked without missing a beat.
He’s recognized immediately something my caffeine-deprived brain had missed: not only had I not had a cup of coffee in two days, I hadn’t ingested any caffeine at all in more than 48 hours.
“Caffeine withdrawal,” he pronounced and recommended that I pour myself a cup of coffee, which had me back to functioning normally within 10 minutes.
But was I functioning normally? According to what we know about caffeine and biology, the brain adjusts to regular caffeine use by altering the way it produces brain chemicals. In other words, the brain essentially adapts to the presence of caffeine and adopts it as the new “normal”. In other words, the body becomes dependent on caffeine to make your brain function normally. Isn’t that the definition of addiction? And isn’t addiction a bad thing?
Not exactly, at least according to Professor Peter Rogers, a professor of biological psychology at Bristol University in the UK. In July, Rogers administered a pair of brain scans to a BBC reporter. The first one was taken after he’d gone 24 hours without caffeine. The second was taken about half an hour after he consumed a cup of coffee that contained about 150 mg of caffeine. The scans showed clearly that caffeine reduced the blood flow to his brain by about 25 percent.
Reduced blood flow to the brain sounds like a bad thing – unless, of course, there’s already too much blood flow in the brain. Rogers suggested that the BBC reporter was dependent on caffeine, but not addicted to it. So, what’s the difference?
Caffeine Dependence Vs. Caffeine Addiction
According to WebMD, there is some truth to the suggestion that caffeine is addictive. It’s a central nervous stimulant, and there is evidence, such as the brain scan performed on the BBC reporter, that the body does become mildly physically dependent on caffeine. If you drink more than two cups of coffee a day, you may suffer some or all of these caffeine withdrawal symptoms:
– Depressed mood
– Difficulty concentrating
On the other hand, caffeine doesn’t seem to threaten your health, including your financial and social health, the way that other addictive drugs do, and the symptoms, while uncomfortable for a day or two, aren’t life threatening or severe. Nor does caffeine cause the same harmful drug-seeking behaviors that alcohol and many street drugs and addictive prescription drugs can cause. For that reason, few experts consider caffeine dependence to be a serious addiction.
In fact, coffee appears to have a great many positive effects on your health, which can’t be said for most of the drugs considered addictive. Nearly all recent research suggests that coffee – not just caffeine – provides protective benefits for the brain, liver, digestive and circulatory system.
So go ahead. Enjoy that cup of coffee. Just don’t overdo it – most beneficial effects level off or disappear after six to eight cups of coffee a day, and most doctors recommend that you keep your caffeine intake to between 200 and 400 mgs daily.