Written by: Marisa Hart

We’ve all been there: crunched for time, low on energy, a to do list a mile long with only caffeine as your saving grace in the face of a daunting day. Caffeine’s energy boost can be useful in studying, working, or, as we covered in another blog post, exercising.

Like all good things, however, caffeine has a dark side. The same chemical processes that can make one person feel focused and alert can make another person feel anxious and restless.

blog header with coffee grinds, a cup or water, and spilt coffee beans.

Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant found in nearly 60 plants including coffee beans, tea leaves, and cacao pods. Its use to increase energy and alertness can be traced back millennia. It acts on neurons in the brain to increase or limit certain chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters.

Although caffeine increases mental alertness and acuity, have you ever wondered why your morning cup of coffee can give you a much-needed energy boost? In this week’s blog, we’ll break down the science, benefits, and learn how to avoid the potential negative effects of caffeine!

The Rundown

Once caffeine makes its way into your brain, it does a couple things: First, it blocks neurons that produce a neurotransmitter called adenosine, a chemical that makes you feel drowsy and tired. Next, your brain releases dopamine and norepinephrine. If you haven’t noticed by now, today’s blog post will contain a lot of big words, but don’t worry, it will all make sense in the end.

Dopamine is known as the “pleasure hormone” and plays a big role in your brain’s reward system. Meanwhile, norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter associated with adrenaline, increases blood pressure and blood flow to the muscles.

It increases blood pressure and blood flow by triggering the blood vessels to get smaller, a process called vasoconstriction. And it’s the dual effect of less adenosine and more norepinephrine that’s responsible for the energy boost. 

The Benefits of caffeine 

While your brain processes caffeine into dopamine and norepinephrine, your liver breaks down caffeine into more chemicals: paraxanthine, theobromine, and theophylline.

Paraxanthine promotes wakefulness, theobromine opens blood vessels increasing the amount of oxygen and nutrients that go to the brain, and theophylline has similar functions as theobromine and helps with concentration (Source: Business Insider).

All together, these dynamic three help you feel more alert, responsive, and wakeful.

But what if caffeine makes me feel anxious instead of energized? 

And if caffeine makes you feel more anxious than energized, you’re not alone. Norepinephrine is an important hormone in the body’s fight-or-flight function. In people prone to anxiety, excessive caffeine consumption can trigger anxiety. 

"Excessive" is the key word here, but we'll go more into that below. And if you’ve had caffeine late in the afternoon, you’ve probably experienced firsthand the effect caffeine can have on sleep. Remember our friend adenosine?

Well, without it, our body doesn’t know that it’s time to go to sleep. Adenosine is an important player in our body’s sleep-wake cycle, also called the circadian rhythm, and it’s the buildup of adenosine that lets our body know when it’s time to go to sleep. So, without adenosine telling our brain and body to wind down, we remain awake and wired.

If you have trouble sleeping after consuming caffeine, try to avoid having it after 4 pm. However, if you find yourself drinking coffee all day or night without ever experiencing negative effects like sleep withdrawal, this could be traced to genetic immunity to caffeine and not necessarily related to tolerance. 

Regardless, everyone is effected in different ways by caffeine intake, so it's important to understand how much is too much for your own body. 

How much is too much?

Like everything in the world, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. As mentioned earlier, too much caffeine can give you jitters and negatively impact your sleep. So, how much caffeine is too much?

Doctors and scientists agree 400 mg of caffeine a day is a moderate amount for the average adult, or roughly 4-5 cups of coffee. It’s worth noting that his measurement is simply a generalization. Caffeine sensitivity depends on a variety of factors.

a 6-ounce cup of coffee and a ounce-based measuring cup

Hormones, weight, metabolism, and how much food and water you’ve consumed can all affect how caffeine makes you feel. You might find that 200 mg is actually your max. Or that 400 mg is your bare minimum. Everyone’s different!

And most importantly, if you’re prone to anxiety or insomnia, it’s best to stick to decaf. And if you’re concerned about your caffeine intake and your health, your doctor can steer you in the right direction.

Lucky for you, cutting back on caffeine doesn’t have to mean cutting out Alma Coffee. Check out our Slumber or Dreamer decaf blends if you’re interested in limiting your caffeine intake, and let us know in the comments how caffeine effects you in good or bad ways!