Let’s talk about one of the most commonly used drugs among college students and professionals. And it’s legal. If you haven’t figured it out already, I’m talking about caffeine. Coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, etc.; caffeine is the shining star that helps these beverages (and foods too) earn our everlasting love. The substance (or more accurately, the chemical) is considered a drug simply because it is potentially addictive. However, there are no real serious health hazards to caffeine, at least when consumed in moderation. Where is the line between “in moderation” and “too much?” You would have to be drinking around thirty cups of coffee (or something equivalent to that) in a week for your habit to become dangerous. Needless to say, items like energy drinks and caffeine pills are manufactured to give a more concentrated amount of the “drug” and are even more dangerous when consumption is not regulated. And I hope we all know that caffeine and alcohol are never okay to mix.
So how do we get to the point of even being addicted to caffeine? Let me break it down. Like I said, caffeine is a chemical. A sneaky chemical, in fact. Once ingested and dissolved through your small intestine and into your blood, it quickly moves past the blood-brain barrier. Here, in the brain, is where caffeine goes to work. As seen in the illustration above, the chemical compound for caffeine is pretty similar to that of the adenosine molecule. Adenosine helps our bodies to relax, promoting sleep and preventing arousal of any type. Adenosine molecules typically attach to receptors in the brain, but caffeine can also fit into these, blocking Adenosine and preventing the proper signals from being transmitted. Without Adenosine blocking them, other natural stimulants work better and thus we experience an overall sense of alertness and energy. Stephen Braun, author of Buzz: the Science and Lore of Caffeine and Alcohol, describes it as “putting a block of wood under one of the brain’s primary brake pedals.” In that sense, caffeine basically enhances the already-present stimulants in our brain.
“You haven’t answered the question of how we get addicted,” you may be saying, while guzzling down your own cup of joe. In short, your brain’s chemical and physical characteristics change in response to regular caffeine intake. More of those adenosine receptors are created and so caffeine has more places to attach, and the number of norepinephrine (a natural stimulant in your brain) receptors are reduced. This is why 1) we need more and more caffeine to keep feeling the same effects and 2) we crash when we try to go without our normal amount. All those adenosine receptors are suddenly open and your body will soon be overwhelmed by the feeling of tiredness. With that, I raise my mug to all you readers on this sleepy afternoon. Shoot, I’m almost out of coffee.