Legal drugs – caffeine

Billions of people worldwide use three legal, widely available, psychoactive drugs daily; do you? The drugs in question are caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Today, we’ll look at caffeine.

We consume caffeine mainly through coffee, energy drinks and tea, with tolerance building up over time. Are you a ‘maximum of two drinks before I get jittery’ or an ‘I can drink it just before bedtime and still sleep’ sort of person? Do you have symptoms of withdrawal if you try to stop, or is it no problem?

Have you ever wondered why coffee can keep you awake? It’s because the caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in your brain cells. Adenosine is a brain chemical that reduces neural activity.

That can sound a bit worrying until you realise you need some sleep! Adenosine levels rise throughout the day until you feel sleepy and want to go to bed. Levels fall in the night, allowing you to wake up ready to go in the morning. This works until you introduce caffeine.

Think of it like this:

  1. You have a key (caffeine) and out it into your vehicle’s ignition (adenosine receptor);
  2. The key goes in but it’s the wrong one and doesn’t work;
  3. The engine does not start.

If the receptors (now blocked with caffeine) are prevented from being turned on by adenosine, your brain is effectively tricked into thinking you haven’t been awake as long as you actually have been and you don’t get sleepy.

Why is caffeine seen as OK to use when many other drugs aren’t?  Firstly, while drugs of abuse significantly overstimulate the brain’s reward circuit (which can lead to unhealthy behaviour), caffeine is only weakly reinforcing. Instead, regular users tend to consume it to avoid withdrawal symptoms of irritability and fatigue rather than chasing a reward.

If you’re prepared to put up with feeling grumpy for a few days, you can break the caffeine habit, especially if you adopt better bedtime routines.

Secondly, studies show regular caffeine use doesn’t pose a significant health risk for most and can even have some health benefits such as reducing the risk of Parkinson’s and type 2 diabetes. (Of course, not eating sugar or having sweetened drinks, even if caffeinated, helps prevent diabetes even more.)

Thirdly, the routine of preparing your tea or coffee, sitting down to sup, or chatting over your cuppa with friends all serve to relax and unwind. Cheers!

Jacqui wrote this 400-word article for the Jersey Evening Post, 19 August 2020.

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Jacqui Carrel helps people with weight problems and addictions. You can book a free, no-obligation call to see if we can work together on your issue.

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