Maybe you’re intimately familiar with the groggy feeling of “waking up” in the morning, slowly and begrudgingly biking over to Cajé and mumbling something the cashier assumes means “large coffee.” Or maybe you know well the seemingly inevitable after-lunch nap that often happens during your unfortunately timed one o’clock discussion section. Caffeine! That’s the answer! you think. Well, friend, I do love to break it to you: you’re doing it wrong.
I have somewhat of an unusual caffeine habit, as my body tends to embarrass me at inappropriate times, acting as if I have narcolepsy. And it doesn’t matter if I’m in the middle of the birthday wine tour with my girlfriend’s family (no, I wasn’t too drunk) or nodding off during an essay final and waking up to find my last paragraph successfully combining Japanese literature and neurotransmission (I may have been too drunk there). Look, I get it. You’re tired. I am too, and at first the easy way seemed to be to grab a Red Bull or a coffee. And it was the easy way, but not the right way.
So let’s say you have a minor caffeine addiction. And you may not even know it, so here’s the truth: if you drink a caffeinated beverage, whether a cup of coffee, a Rockstar or a Coke, about once a day, you’re likely addicted.
All the time, at every moment, your brain produces some stuff (adenosine) that makes you tired by binding to receptors and activating them. Caffeine works by blocking this stuff from binding to these receptors by pulling the fake ID and fooling their way into binding with them instead without activating them. This is effectively like removing the noise ordinance on Halloween. It doesn’t actively give partiers more energy, but blocks possible buzzkills. This is key. Caffeine doesn’t give you energy; it blocks tiredness. You’re a liar, Kevin. I don’t believe you; I get jittery when I drink coffee! It must give me energy. Wrong again, dear reader. The feeling of excitation comes from the caffeine molecule’s interaction with a special organelle found in muscle nerve tissue called sarcoplasmic reticulum that makes your muscles want to move around. Look it up.
But caffeine works, and now I know how with science! Yes, caffeine works. But maybe you don’t understand the addiction aspect.
Your brain is incredibly good at regulating all the changes that take place due to what you bombard it with. That’s why you get drunk, and the next day you’re sober. Things move around. Things adapt and figure themselves out. If you want to know more, take a neuroscience class. With an addiction, whether it’s cigarettes, coffee or alcohol, your brain adapts to the change, and quickly, as I described earlier. Remember the receptors that are blocked by caffeine? Well your brain gets used to that, by creating more receptors. Shit. Now I need to drink more caffeine to block all those extra receptors. Well, you can do that. And then your brain will make even more receptors. So then, here you are, the caffeine out of your system and you have way more receptors to make you sleepy. So that means when you’re addicted to caffeine, drinking caffeine will bring you back up to normal from below baseline. And your brain can become tolerant to your daily caffeine habit in less than a week. Then, without your coffee you’ll feel extra tired. Oops.
This is the black hole of addiction. And though withdrawal symptoms for caffeine can be just tiredness, they can also be a pounding headache, depression, lack of concentration (duh, you’re sleepy) or even flu-like symptoms. There are adenosine receptors all over your body, too, so you can experience aches and muscle soreness everywhere. Yeah, this sucks.
Bottom line: If you sport a caffeine addiction, as described above, caffeine is not helping, and in fact it is taking you to lower levels of concentration and alertness before and after its affects than your non-addicted counterparts. Big bummer.
Well, shucks, you say, what can I do? The two most important aspects of correctly (ab)using caffeine is to take it only occasionally, and to drink it slowly. Doing this will allow you to actually be affected by it in a positive way, and for its effects to be sustainable for any usable amount of time. If you down your large caramel ice-blended from Cajé in 10 minutes (as I do), then you’ll process the caffeine too quickly and feel jittery and consequently crash.
You might embrace the wrong and continue your addiction, now with the unfortunate knowledge that you’re effectively giving your money to coffee companies so you can bring yourself back to being the normal, wrong college student you always wanted to be. Or maybe you’ll just go back to sleep.
Daily Nexus columnist Kevin Ferguson has been seen guiltily slinking away from Cajé with an ice-blended in his hand.