Recently my wife and I have been watching TED-ed videos. Ever heard of them?
They’re the educational arm of TED—fascinating, pithy videos about all sorts of topics. Over the past few weeks, we’ve learned about how plants defend themselves, the history of gothic culture, and, my personal favorite, why cats act so weird.
But one video we watched has stuck with me in particular—how caffeine keeps us awake.
Do you know how caffeine works?
Here’s how it goes:
- As our neurons fire, they generate byproducts, one of which is a neurotransmitter called adenosine
- When a lot of adenosine builds up in the brain, it triggers a series of biochemical reactions, making you feel sleepy
- When you drink caffeine, say via a pumpkin-spice latte (hah!), it makes its way into the brain where it prepares to do its magic
- Structurally, caffeine looks a lot like adenosine, so it sneaks into the adenosine receptor sites, blocking it from doing its job
- Because the adenosine isn’t binding to the receptor sites, you feel awake and energized!
Pretty cool, eh? But what does this mean for you, dear reader?
First, realize that caffeine isn’t making you feel awake so much as it’s masking sleepiness. We’re borrowing energy, not creating it. We’re borrowing energy from the future and using now, and taking current sleepiness and paying for it in the future.
Second, caffeine has a half-life of about 6 hours. So if you have 100mg of caffeine (a typical 8oz cup o’ joe) at noon, you’ll have 50mg floating around at 6pm and 25mg floating around a midnight.
(Based on that knowledge, how much caffeine will you have in your system at bedtime tonight?)
"We’d be wise to use caffeine strategically rather than habitually. If we need caffeine to get going in the morning, what we really need is more rest, not more caffeine," says Brian Johnson over at Optimize.me.
For me, learning all this has definitely been paradigm-shifting. I still love coffee, but I'm a bit more, well, mature about it. I realize that it's not a panacea. It's still a drug, albeit a very popular one. One that can change my brain, kill my sleep, and even hinder my emotional intelligence.
So, how do you use caffeine?
Are you using it wisely?
Is it time for a change in strategy?
If so, what would that look like?
(Really! What, specific, changes would you make?)