The Neurological Effects of Caffeine


Caffeine— it’s a substance that helps many get through the day. Whether it is in the form of coffee, tea or the casual energy drink, caffeine gives people the extra boost to get things done.     

As college students, it’s something that many of us feel we can’t live without. Yet, many are unaware that according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) caffeine is actually considered to be a drug. Regardless of this fact, it will not stop average consumers from buying their caramel macchiato in the morning. But, before we go for their drink of choice, it is important to know what exactly caffeine is.

Professor Dustin Moore, with the Nutrition & Dietetics Department at California State University, Long Beach, gave some insight on what caffeine is and how it affects the body.

How does caffeine work for the human body?

“It’s fair to begin with, ‘what is caffeine?’ Caffeine, at its simplest level, is just a neurostimulant. It is a drug, and like many drugs, there is a potential for addiction. As long as it is used in appropriate amounts, we don’t see any amounting harm that comes from it. I can tell you that the scientific literature shows that what we have seen from looking over a bunch of different items is that caffeine, as we previously thought, does not appear to elevate your blood pressure. It does not increase your risk for heart disease.

“The biggest problem you see from a biochemical level with caffeine intake is that people can develop an addiction to it because of the fact that it is a neurostimulant. It amps up the activity of your brain, [so] you can develop addictive properties to it.”

Can you tell me more about addiction to caffeine?

“The most common symptoms we see of it is headaches, restlessness and high irritability. In some, we see high dependency on it where they don’t seem to function very well until they’ve had their caffeine fix. The addiction to caffeine manifests in the symptoms with withdrawal. People who have a consistent intake of caffeine— let’s say a person who gets a double tall at Starbucks every morning— if the person stops consuming caffeine on a regular basis, they’ve developed an addiction to it. ”

How you feel about caffeine being part of a person’s daily meal?

“The addiction part of it doesn’t bother me as much as the food side of it. What bothers me most about caffeine usage is what’s commonly associated with coffee intake and tea intake. The problem I see, especially within the college crowd, is that that becomes their meal substitute. It’s just a bad idea for any student to get in their fix and think that’s all they need in the morning and that that’s what’s needed for a substantive breakfast. Coffee doesn’t provide anything. It can provide calories from the creamer, from the sugar you add into it. Caffeine itself doesn’t provide anything nutritionally. It’s a bad habit to make it a meal substitute.”

How much caffeine is just the right amount for a person?

“Primarily, caffeine you get it from three sources— well, now four. Coffee, like I mentioned, is one of the primary sources and has about 100 milligrams of caffeine in it per cup. That alone is a lot. That’s enough to cause a stimulus dose, a stimulus response in the brain.”

How exactly does the intake of caffeine activate in the brain?

“The way caffeine works is that it crosses the blood brain barrier and causes the synthesis of neurotransmitters that lead themselves to alertness, higher activity and hyperactivity in the brain. It’s the affect of thinking that you may feel more energetic or you may feel a higher boost of energy, but that is not what’s actually happening. What is actually happening is that the electrical stimulation in neurotransmitters release in the brain is going into overdrive in response to the caffeine. So, it acts the same way in regardless of what form it is administered. This does not mean that the brain is acting better, it just means that the brain is acting more actively.”

What happens when a person is having a caffeine overdose?

“It’s the affect of when you have a dose of about over 200 milligrams over a certain time period. We see side effects such as tremors, shaking and restlessness. It’s just an effect when there is too much delivered at one time, and it just increases more than it is able to do. [This is] almost what you’d see when you have withdrawal, but, in this case, while the person is caffeinated. The pharmacology of it.”

What do you recommend as alternatives for caffeine?

“A good healthy balanced diet, getting enough exercise and having restful normal sleep patterns. There’s plenty of nutritional deficiencies a person can develop which can lead them to have lower energy levels. Having a healthy lifestyle, having good social relationships, getting to the gym, working out, getting good physical activities in other forms outside of the gym, getting enough sleep at night, having breakfast and a regular meal pattern. Those are the things that optimize your energy levels. Anything else is not a good idea.

The other thing is to consider the lifestyle of staying awake late at night. There’s nothing to recommend for it, because that’s not how the body is meant to operate. We can give it caffeine. We can do push ups, jumping jacks, trying to keep it awake, but the fact is that healthy human habits require typical restful sleep cycles. Except under emergency or extreme circumstances, it’s never a good thing when the body has to skip its normal REM cycles it gets from sleep. It doesn’t contribute to health.”