How does caffeine keep us awake?
In the human body, caffeine acts as a stimulant of the central nervous system, composed of our brain and spinal cord. This is the reason why it is sometimes referred to as the “most used drug in the world”. Caffeine keeps us awake by blocking one of the body’s key sleep-inducing molecules: adenosine. Adenosine results from the production of energy, and more precisely from the breakdown of ATP, which could be defined as the fuel our body needs to carry out any metabolic or cellular action. As they bind to their specific receptors in the brain, adenosine molecules induce a slackening of important brain-signaling pathways, and we start to feel sleepy. Caffeine is an “adenosine receptor antagonist”, as it binds adenosine receptors and inhibits adenosine activity, and stimulates the organism.
Does caffeine have benefits?
Some studies associate moderated caffeine consumption with a reduced risk of cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson and Alzheimer, and of some types of cancers. Athletes are also keen on caffeine since it ramps up the capacity of the body to burn fats. Caffeine is also known to boost the effect of dopamine in the body, increasing positive moods.
Does caffeine have downsides?
Some specific conditions like acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or gastritis may be aggravated by caffeine consumption. Recent studies suspect it to increase stomach acid secretion and to relax the lower esophageal sphincter that is meant to prevent stomach acid from back-flowing into the esophagus, causing both inflammation and reflux. In people with hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction, caffeine is known to worsen an already excessive stress response. Pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals are also advised to keep away from caffeine that can jeopardize the fetus development in the first, or cause food intolerance in the second. Additionally, the constant blocking of adenosine receptors leads the body to create some new ones, trapping people in a vicious circle where they feel that they always need more coffee to overcome sleepiness, provoking insomnia. Finally, caffeine can raise our heart rate and blood pressure, cause increased urination or diarrhea and turn our instantaneous enthusiasm into anxiety.
What are the alternatives to caffeine?
If you are trying to slowly shift from coffee to any alternative, you can turn to Yerba mate, a herbaceous tea native to South America, as it still contains high-caffeine. Brewed cacao could also be an option. Beyond its tasty chocolate flavor, it is rich in theobromine, a twin of caffeine, that similarly inhibits adenosine and promotes wakefulness, although to a lesser extent. Brewed cacao also consists of antioxidant flavanols, supportive of the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular systems. Recent studies finally associate it with improved brain plasticity and enhanced cognitive functions, and even dopaminergic supportive effects through its PEA (phenethylamine) content.
If your goal is to progressively dampen your caffeine consumption, you may want to replace coffee with green or black tea, as they provide smaller quantities of caffeine. Alongside its lower caffeine content, green tea also contains many bioactive compounds with neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, anti-cancer, and oral health-promoting properties. Among caffeine-free alternatives, Tulsi tea or “holy basil” is an adaptogen. It means that it helps to modulate and balance stress responses. Moreover, it has neuroprotective virtues and may contribute to cognitive function. Despite being naturally caffeine-free, Chicory Root and Dandelion Root are both from the “daisy family” and when roasted and steeped in water, they have a coffee-like flavor. They support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and aid in healthy bowel movements. A last candidate to mitigate caffeine consumption is Mushroom tea, that traditionally blends Chaga, Reishi and Cordyceps together. Indeed, it offers awakening properties, enabling focus and overall cognition but in a moderate way, avoiding the jitters sometimes caused by caffeine.