It's difficult to find someone these days who doesn't enjoy at least one cup of coffee daily. Whether you get yours from a chain like Starbucks or Dunkin, the local shop on the corner, or you make it at home each morning, coffee is without a doubt engrained in almost every culture around the globe. How did it become so widely used? Well, its been around for quite some time.
The legend goes that a 9th century goat herder discovered the beans while roaming the countryside with his goats. The animals would eat the red-green berries and begin acting as if they possessed increased energy. Soon after, the discovery of roasting and brewing the beans was made and the rest is history. But does coffee ACTUALLY give us increased energy?
It doesn't exactly give us "energy", so to speak. The main energy molecule the body utilizes for normal functioning is called ATP (or adenosine triphosphate). Coffee doesn't contain molecules of ATP, but it does provide something that prevents the feeling of sleepiness: caffeine.
Essentially, caffeine is very similar in structure to another molecule called adenosine (not ATP), and adenosine is one of the big culprits for making you sleepy. As we spend time awake, adenosine molecules build up in the body and attach to adenosine receptors in the brain. As the day goes on, we feel more and more sleepy due to the larger and larger number of adenosine molecules attaching to the brain.
Then in comes caffeine. Because adenosine and caffeine are similar in structure, caffeine is also able to attach to the adenosine receptors in the brain, preventing the feeling of sleepiness. This causes the body to produce more adenosine receptors in order for you to fall asleep (we can't stay awake forever, as much as you may want to) which means you require more caffeine in order to feel the same effects from the coffee (see how this can get dangerous?). So no, coffee doesn't actually give you energy. It simply prevents you from feeling tired.
The body's ultimate goal IS to get you to fall asleep. Sleep is our body's chance to recover from the day, rebuild muscle tissue, clean the brain, and much more. Caffeine shouldn't be used as a replacement for sleep, that would only lead to more and more coffee consumption, or even worse...energy drinks (don't get me started on the synthetic chemicals in those bad boys). There ARE benefits to drinking coffee though. Coffee, in reasonable amounts, has the ability to:
Improve mental performance and focus.
Improve physical performance.
Notice the key words here are reasonable amounts. This means somewhere in the ballpark of 50-250 milligrams of caffeine per day (the average 12 oz cup contains ~150 mg). So how can we use coffee as a tool rather than a crutch? Here are some tips:
Use it sparingly.
Instead of having a cup a day and experiencing withdrawal-like symptoms when you don't get that morning cup, try adding in breaks from coffee into your normal rhythm. Some options include:
2 days on, 3 days off.
1 week on, 2 weeks off.
1 month on, 2 months off.
Having regular breaks from caffeine will ensure your brain isn't producing too many adenosine receptors and you're able to still experience the effects of the caffeine.
Drink 2 cups of water after 1 cup of coffee.
This doesn't have to be directly after your cup-o-joe, but within roughly an hour after drinking a cup. Caffeine is a diuretic, which means it dehydrates your body through excess urination. Not drinking water in addition to coffee can result in mild to moderate dehydration, especially in the warmer months.
Have high-quality, black coffee.
Certain brands are better than others when it comes to producing quality coffee beans. Ideally your coffee is as fresh as possible to reap the antioxidant benefits and you are drinking it black to ensure you're getting nothing but the good stuff. Mixing it with added sugars, syrups, powders, etc., negates the benefits from the coffee due to the negative effects of added sugars. So drink your coffee either black or with a high quality fat like MCT oil, coconut oil, or ghee. Added tip: local coffee shops and online subscriptions are usually the best places to buy from.
No caffeine after 2 pm.
Caffeine has a half-life of 5-6 hours. Which means if you have a 200 mg cup of coffee at 1 pm, you still have roughly 100 mg running through your system at 7 pm. Not what you want when your body is supposed to be increasing melatonin and getting ready for bed. Cut the caffeine by 2 pm to get the best quality sleep.
Coffee can be a very beneficial tool in your productivity and nutrition tool belts, if used appropriately. But remember: it's technically a drug, and for good reason. It can become very addictive, very fast. Use coffee to your advantage, don't let it use you.
Braeden Yacobucci, RDN/RD, LD, CF-OL1
Cara Barton, OTR/L, PN1, CF-L1