Caffeine is one hell of a drug.
Caffeine is a stimulant, and one of the most widely used performance-enhancing compounds in the world. Unlike some supplements and compounds, caffeine is extremely well studied.
Just so we’re on the same page, I’ll briefly give you a little background, and point out that various experiments suggest that caffeine:
- May have neuroprotective effects with regard to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- May have protective effects against heart disease and diabetes
- Is associated with reduced risk of liver and colorectal cancer
- Is linked to a reduced risk of suicide and improved mood
- Increases metabolism by 3-11% and fat burning by up to 13% in a dose dependent manner
- Suppresses appetite
- Has well-documented cognitive and performance-enhancing effects
I’d also like to tip my hat to Andrew Huberman (Ph.D., professor of Neuroscience at Stanford), and his incredible podcast, where – while continually referencing studies and clearly explaining mechanism – Huberman makes some excellent points about caffeine.
He argues that, in addition to having many benefits (including an inverse association with depressive symptoms) caffeine:
- Allows you to essentially “borrow energy” from your future self (Huberman’s wording)
- “increases the number and sensitivity of dopamine receptors in the brain,” (!!!) essentially making things that would feel good feel even better
- works as a “reinforcer” (!!!) – making you want to ingest more of things that have caffeine in it, and making you want to do more things that are associated with caffeine consumption
Both from personal, anecdotal experience, and from following the logic of the the podcast (that I’ll leave you to judge for yourself) I believe these statements are generally accurate.
In other words…caffeine is one hell of a drug.
That being said, here are what I believe are 2 underrated risks of caffeine:
ONE: When taken in excess doses, too late in the day, it can fuck up your sleep.
Okay, I KNOW, you’re thinking “this is obvious, everyone already knows this.”
But people are underestimating the risk here.
According to Matt Walker, probably the world’s foremost expert on sleep, even people who insist they can “take an espresso shot and then fall asleep afterward” are still getting lower quality sleep due to that caffeine, they’re just not aware of it.
And if you do reduce your sleep quality due to caffeine use, you’re gonna need more caffeine the next day. This can result in a sort of downward spiral of increased caffeine need and poorer sleep. (All the while interfering with your “compensatory sleep,” or ability to nap to recover.)
Caffeine has an average half life of roughly 5 hours (meaning generally, 5 hours after consumption, half of it is still left in your system, unmetabolized. A quarter of it is still hanging around ten hours later.*) You want a minimal amount left in your system before bed. So to figure out your personal caffeine use limits, it’s really both the timing and total dose that matter here.
*it’s a non-linear function, sorry guys
Also, everyone’s body handles caffeine a little bit differently. Some people might need to stick to a very low dose of caffeine, very early in the morning (and some can be more flexible, having more, a bit later in the day). But no matter who you are: please, take some care to stay out of this downward spiral caffeine/sleep rabbit hole!
TWO: Caffeine and sugar, together, can act as potent double-reinforcers.
Bro, I saw caffeinated donuts for sale the other day. Incredible.
It’s honestly a pretty smart idea because that’s probably about as addictive as you can (legally) make something, without putting nicotine in it.
We’ve established that caffeine is a powerful reinforcer that makes you want more of the things that contain it. Sugar does effectively the same thing. Sugar consumption causes a rapid increase in dopamine – and rapid increases in dopamine cause rapid drops afterward, which cause a strange type of pain that’s interpreted as a feeling of craving. Further, experiments show that even if you completely numb someone’s mouth and eliminate their ability to taste, that person will prefer a sugary beverage over a non sugary one, even though they can’t taste the difference.
(In other words, it’s not just the taste of sugar, it’s something about what it’s actually doing inside you, that is habit-forming.)
So if I wanted to design a totally legal, nicotine-free product, to make you keep coming back for more, it would have lots of sugar, and lots of caffeine.
In other words, it would probably look a lot like a caffeinated donut.
(Or better yet, a really caffeinated, really sugary beverage – the sugar would probably hit faster in liquid form.)
Alright, so every once in a while, a caramel latte is probably fine. But the advice here is try to separate your sugar from your caffeine, so you don’t have these two powerful habit-formers coreinforcing each other. (In case you were wondering, caffeine’s subtle metabolic-boosting effects are not enough to offset it being paired with sugar.)
If you need sugar in your coffee, here’s a hot take: I recommend a non-nutritive sweetener like erythritol.
Here are what I believe are 2 underrated, powerful, caffeine uses:
1. Leverage (borrowing)
I talked in this article about investing your resources, and we’ve already established that caffeine allows you to borrow energy from your future self.
(Now I’m gonna talk about money for a second, so I can make an analogy…)
In finance, a powerful tool is leverage, where you borrow money to invest for greater returns. Of course, if you borrow money to make risky investments, you’re amplifying risk. But if you’re borrowing for a well-considered, intelligent investment, leverage is extremely powerful (and indeed often necessary to allow you to do things you couldn’t otherwise accomplish – like buying a home).
Think of caffeine in the exact same way.
You can use caffeine to borrow energy, essentially “using leverage,” to “make an investment” in order to accomplish something particularly beneficial.
One of the hands-down most powerful way to do this is by borrowing energy to exercise (in effect, borrowing energy to create more energy – because with the right intensity, exercise can actually be energizing). Plus, exercise can powerfully boost your mood and overall health.
In my view, this is one of the highest reward and lowest risk ways to put the power of caffeine to good use.
It’s strategic because the benefits are recursive – i.e., the exercise itself tends to create more overall health/energy, which then allows for more exercise, and so on. It also has beneficial ripple effects on sleep, mental function, etc.
(See this article about compounding non-financial resource investment.)
You could also “borrow energy” via caffeine to get really important work done, assuming you’re being careful with dosage and timing.
Since we know caffeine is a reinforcer (again, that means it makes you want to ingest more things that contain it, and do more things that are associated with it), it’s possible to use the substance to associate pleasure with productive activities.
Again, in my opinion, one of the most powerful options here is exercise.
Having (non-sugary) caffeine right before exercise – or “pairing” caffeine with exercise, so to speak – can reinforce exercise as being pleasurable, in a surprisingly potent way.
Of course, you could use intentionally use caffeine to reinforce just about any useful activity.
But caffeine’s energizing, exercise-performance-enhancing effects lend it very well to reinforcing exercise.
Alright, that just about sums up today’s post.
Use caffeine responsibly; it’s a powerful substance. Watch your total dosage, and avoid taking it too late in the day.
(As of this writing, I personally stop all caffeine consumption by 2pm at the latest, and often earlier, like noon or one.)
Also, try to separate caffeine from sugar.
But caffeine is an extremely effective, highly studied performance enhancer that you can use strategically to associate pleasure with useful activities and “borrow energy” from your future self to accomplish things – and it seems exceptionally well-suited for use alongside exercise.
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