September 16, 2020


Minute read

The Psychoactive Drug Our World Runs On

What drug was originally discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder in the 1500’s, was banned in Mecca in 1511, is most expensive in Indonesia, and more than 80% of Americans use it?

If you’re reading this in the morning, there’s a good chance you’re sipping this ‘drug’ right now!

That’s right, coffee — or more specifically, caffeine — is the most commonly used psychoactive drug in the world. And most of us are addicted to it.

What Actually Happens?

I can feel you grimacing from here. Let me put your mind at ease — I’m not going to tell you that you need to kick your morning java habit. So you can go ahead and breath again!

I do, however, want to share with you what happens inside your brain as you sip that morning espresso. This way, you can enjoy this magic elixir mindfully and intentionally, should you choose to do so. 

As you have probably noticed, there is a dip in energy as your day goes on — it’s not just your imagination. 

This drop happens because, during your waking hours, your brain accumulates a chemical called adenosine. Our brain naturally creates adenosine receptors to which the chemical binds, slowing down brain activity making us feel drowsy. 

You can think of adenosine as the chemical that helps balance things out. It give us a little “rest and digest” sensation amid the stress-induced cortisol and adrenaline bursts that occur throughout a normal day.

You might be thinking, well how do I get rid of adenosine? Don’t I drink coffee to NOT feel that dip in energy? Well, the only way to “get rid of” the little sleep-inducing fellas is by getting in our 7 or 8 hours of restful sleep. During rest our adenosine supply and receptors reset, creating a more naturally vibrant, bright and bushy-tailed morning you than the previous night! 

The “issue” is that for most of us, our first thought upon waking starts with a “c” and ends with “offee.”

Though it’s delicious, and makes us feel the warm and fuzzies, caffeine is molecularly similar to adenosine. As a result, it can pair with our brain’s adenosine receptors as if were adenosine. 

This tricks your brain and makes you feel alert because it keeps the adenosine from locking into the receptors, thus temporarily preventing fatigue. So yes, coffee stops the effects of adenosine. 

So What’s The Big Deal?

Okay, so caffeine fills in the gaps, what the big deal? Remember all that adenosine that is produced? Well, now it’s hanging around with no place to go!

At the same time, our body begins to have a reliance on the caffeine we’re feeding it.  It makes us feel good — thanks to our do-it-again chemical, dopamine — and, therefore, we want more of it.

But is that a problem?

It is. The reason is that the adenosine is still hanging out, but with no place to go. As we continue to drink, more caffeine rushes in to fill its slots, and as a result, our brain tries to maintain equilibrium by creating more receptors (I guess it doesn’t want the adensoine to feel left out?). 

But with the adenosine still hanging around, more receptors means more caffeine is needed to feel the buzz. So, we take more coffee, even more receptors are introduced, and a vicious cycle commences. Yay!

This process also explains why, when you quit drinking coffee, you feel tired and lethargic for the first week or so. You have all these extra adenosine receptors demanding caffeine. Double yay!

The long-term result of this consistent caffeine intake is that our brain reduces the amount of neoepinephrine (which gives us energy and zest) it produces in attempt to balance things out — after all, caffeine is doing all the work. 

This reduction in neoepinephrine and it’s receptors leads to less neuron communication, which, in turn, might lead to faulty synapses (more formally known as brain farts). 

Feel vaguely familiar? No wonder Mecca banned the stuff. 

Are You Feeling Bold? (as your coffee?)

Now I get it. I, too, love my espresso – the smell, the taste, the dopamine boost. But as I learned what I just shared with you, I decided to challenge myself by trying to notice coffee’s impact on my brain and body.

I’d like to suggest that you try this little experiment as well. Even if for just one day, hold off on the coffee. Do you notice the impact? Maybe you feel grumpy, cranky or, headachy?

If you can get through that one day, you might consider seeing how you feel if you extend the experiment a bit. Try going without coffee for 7 days — the amount of time it typically takes to eliminate excess receptors. If you can pull this off, you’ll be starting with a clean slate!

As you go through this experiment, if you notice you’re feeling an afternoon slump and want to make a change — but don’t necessarily want to give up your daily cuppa — you may want to reconsider the time in which you take your coffee. 

Cortisol (our stress hormone) is released in our body a few times a day, depending on our circadian rhythm, naturally revving things up and giving us a boost.

If we’re taking caffeine, which stimulates adrenaline, at the same time, it leads us to a double dose of “stress” levels in the body, which is not great for focus, brain function, or your nervous system! 

So the when matters.

For the average person, who wakes up at around 6:30am, the optimal window for caffeine consumption —when cortisol isn’t spiked — is between 9:30 and 11:30 am. 

I challenge you to experiment with this to cultivate higher sensitivity and a greater measure of mindfulness in your caffeine ritual! 

If you’re feeling bold, perhaps you’ll postpone your morning java and substitute a large glass (or three) of H2O in its place. See how your coffee tastes — and activates your brain and nervous system — when you take it just a bit later in your day! 

About the Author: Laura Araujo

Passionate about accessible education and evidence-based wellness, Laura founded The MAPS Institute, an educational wellness editorial and platform. Aside from her passion for research and educating, Laura is a classically trained vocalist, sound therapist, and a practitioner and teacher of Ashtanga and Restorative Yoga. She is the creator of the MAPS (Mindfulness, Activation, Purpose, and Surrender) philosophy and is in continual pursuit of helping her students and herself find balance amid the chaos around and within them. When not sifting through Nature Magazine, complaining about their paywalls, she enjoys trying new wine varietals, experimenting in the kitchen, riding her bicycle (sometimes cross-country), and spending time with her husband Charlie, cockapoo Miles, and expected baby girl, Ella.  Click here to follow the MAPS Institute on social media.



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